PROVIDENCE — The state redistricting commission on Wednesday voted for new House, Senate, and congressional district maps, redrawing Rhode Island’s political boundaries to reflect the new census counts.
The proposed maps now head to the General Assembly for final approval. The biggest change involves counting 41 percent of state inmates at their home addresses rather than at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston – a compromise step toward ending what critics call “prison gerrymandering.”
“We made history in 2022,” said Representative Grace Diaz, a Providence Democrat on the redistricting commission. “Because of the hard work between the public and this commission to ensure that ACI inmates were fairly distributed and part of the process, we just made history in Rhode Island.”
Under the proposed maps, the state will begin counting inmates at their home addresses rather than at the ACI if they’re expected to be in prison for less than two years or haven’t been sentenced yet. The remainder will continue to be counted at the Cranston prison complex for redistricting purposes.
Critics claimed the current system “distorts democracy” by providing outsized representation to elected leaders in districts with prison cells while diminishing the representation of other districts, particularly urban districts with many people of color. But Cranston officials defended the current system, saying the city pays for fire, police, and other public services at the prisons.
In another significant change, the final version of the House map keep the Hill and Harbor neighborhoods together in East Greenwich. Many town officials and residents had testified before the commission, objecting to previous versions of the map that split the Hill and Harbor into separate House districts.
“The main one that people have all been talking about is East Greenwich in terms of the Hill and Harbor,” redistricting consultant Kimball W. Brace said. “I am happy to report that we have put that back together.”
While East Greenwich officials had argued that the town was the ideal size for one House District, Brace said House District 30 is “not in isolation,” sitting in the middle of the state, and drawing legislative boundaries creates a “ripple effect.” So while the the latest House map reunites Hill and Harbor, it shifts a different portion of the town into a neighboring House district, he noted.
House District 30 is now represented by Representative Justine Caldwell, an East Greenwich Democrat.
The redistricting commission ended up voting 13 to 4 for the House and Senate maps. The “no” votes came from four Republican legislators – Representative Brian C. Newberry, of North Smithfield, Representative David J. Place, of Burrillville; Senator Jessica de la Cruz, of North Smithfield, and Senator Gordon E. Rogers, of Foster.
Rogers said the latest House and Senate maps – Plan D – were posted on the redistricting website about five minutes before Wednesday’s meeting began, and they reflected the redistribution of inmates. So he called for postponing the final vote to provide an opportunity for the public to weigh in on the latest iterations of the maps before they go to the General Assembly.
“We basically took an oath of being transparent, open, and having a fair process,” Rogers said. “And I would hate to see that tainted.”
But Senator Stephen R. Archambault, a Smithfield Democrat who is co-chairman of the commission, went ahead with the final votes.
“These are going to go to committee where there can still be continued dialogue,” he said. “We are voting at the end of our work on whether we are going to send these to committee,” so “there will still be time to have dialogue and input.”
Newberry raised concerns about changes to two legislative districts. He questioned why House District 46 (represented by Representative Mary Ann Shallcross Smith, a Lincoln Democrat), contains a small chunk of Pawtucket when the district is mostly in the town of Lincoln.
Newberry also questioned why a slice of Lincoln is now in Senate District 22 (represented by Archambault) rather than in Senate District 17 (represented by Senator Thomas J. Paolino, a Lincoln Republican). “It looks very weird, and I hope the Senate takes a hard look at it when it gets there,” he said.
But former Representative Stephen R. Ucci, a Johnston Democrat on the redistricting commission, said there are bound to be “anomalies” as legislative districts are drawn while factoring in communities of interest, minority populations, the shifting of inmate addresses, and other variables. “But at the end of the day, there are tough choices we have to make,” he said. “And with the last two examples, I don’t really see a problem with them.”
The commission voted 15 to 2 for the congressional map, with Newberry and Place voting “no.” De la Cruz and Rogers voted for those maps, saying there had been plenty of time for the public to comment on those proposals.
In an email, Common Cause Rhode Island on Wednesday said the new legislative maps “maximize protecting incumbent politicians, and minimize partisan fairness.” But the maps do represent “a small step toward eliminating the practice known as prison gerrymandering,” the group said.
“We appreciate that the commission’s decision to take this incremental step, however it is clear that there is more work to be done to end prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island,” Common Cause executive director John M. Marion wrote. “We will continue our advocacy at the General Assembly in the coming years to makes sure that in the future everyone is counted at their home address.”
Common Cause noted that the redistricting process will continue on the local level, with cities such as Providence and Cranston drawing new ward boundaries.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.