The Law & Drawing District Lines

LWV RI study material 2001

Rhode Island legislative districts appear arbitrary. Over half of our senators and over a third of our representatives represent parts of more than one city or town. Current lines leave one senator representing parts of six communities, and one representative representing parts of four communities. Some of the combinations are political "odd couples," pairing municipalities with widely divergent interests. The town of Exeter with a population of about 5,500 is divided between 2 senate districts and 3 house districts. There are nine voting districts (out of 568) with fewer than 100 voters. Eight of these "micro districts" are in Providence where non-congruent U.S Congressional district lines, RI senate and house district lines, and city ward lines create a total of 103 voting districts. More than half of all calls to the League of Women Voters Information line on Election Days are from Providence voters attempting to find their polling places. Why the mess? And what are we legally required or not required to do?

To begin with, most factors in redistricting are almost a direct result of federal rulings. Until 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962) that failure to be fairly represented because of malapportionment in one's state legislature was denial of equal protection of the law, states were able to reapportion themselves when and how they deemed it necessary. In 1964, the court's decision in Westberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964) established the principle of "one-person- one-vote." Legislative districts were required to differ by no more than ten percent from the smallest to the largest, unless justified by some "rational state policy." Gaffney v. Cummings, 412 U.S. 735 (1973); White v. Regester, 412 U.S. 755 (1973). In the 1980s, the Court held that congressional districts must be mathematically equal, unless justified by some "legitimate state objective." Karcher v. Daggett, 462 U.S. 725 (1983).

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 (readopted and strengthened in 1970, 1975, 1982) to protect the rights of black voters and established that the drawing of lines could not be used to disadvantage black voters. In the1986 case of Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, the Court set forth three preconditions a minority group must prove in order to establish a violation of Sect. 2 of the Voting Rights Act:

  1. that the minority group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district;
  2. that it is politically cohesive, that is, it usually votes for the same candidates; and
  3. that, in the absence of special circumstances, bloc voting by the white majority usually defeats the minority's preferred candidate.

To reflect federal rulings, Rhode Island law was changed (Public Law 1966, chap. 115 and 116 - the Constitution was subsequently changed to reflect these laws) to require that both House and Senate "districts shall be as nearly equal in population as possible." However, New Shoreham (Block Island) with a population of 486 presented a problem. Respecting its municipal lines as a voting district would either skew representation unacceptably, or using multiples of the community's population to determine representation in the other cities and towns would have resulted in a House and/or Senate of over 800 representatives. Consequently acknowledging realities of arithmetic, the law instead simply required that districts be "as compact in territory as possible."

That Block Island is physically distant from other municipalities, then raised the question of whether it is possible to have districts that are both equal and compact in RI. In an Opinion to the Governor (Chafee), 101 R.I. 203,221 A2d 799 (R.I. 1966) the Rhode Island Supreme Court concluded that the compactness requirement was intended "to provide an electorate with effective representation rather than with a design to establish an orderly and symmetrical geometric pattern of electoral districts ," and to prevent "the political gerrymander." (Other states do not have the compactness requirement and have produced gerrymandered districts that make Rhode Island appear a model of reasonableness.)

Although many other states require "nested" house and senate districts which would eliminate the possibility of "micro-districts" due to non-congruent district lines, Rhode Island did not include that requirement in its law or Constitution. The plans for senate and house districts are independently developed, so multiple lines are inevitable. Cities drawing ward lines concurrently is probably an unavoidable evil. With the advent of computerization, the "tweaking" of lines to "refine" districts is possible, and magnifies the problem. Unfortunately, although the original downsizing plan proposed that there be 75 house districts and 25 senate districts, the Constitutional Amendment passed by the Legislature and ratified by the public in the 1994 General Election decreed 75 house and 38 senate districts. Consequently it will be impossible to "nest" house and senate districts in the future and very little can be done to improve the problem of multiple lines (barring constitutional amendment).

In the 1980's redistricting, "political gerrymandering" became an issue and the R.I. Supreme Court ruled that political motives were a legitimate factor in drawing lines, but could not be the only factor when determining lines for districts. Hence it was decided that although switching the island of Jamestown from a North Kingstown house district to a Newport district was in all likelihood politically motivated, there were rational reasons for linking the island to Newport, so the charge of "political gerrymandering" was not proven. However, "political gerrymandering" was proven in the senate plan for Providence, because in merging two senatorial districts on the East Side, all natural, historic, and political boundaries were ignored while clearly targeting two politicians outside the political power structure of the Legislature. (This particular bit of redistricting also violated the Voting Rights Act.)

Although it would seem that virtually every aspect of redistricting has been litigated, redistricting is still not a matter of applying simple rules. What we have is a variety of factors that must be balanced against one another. With sophisticated computer software and detailed computerized data from the Census Bureau, voting districts can adhere strictly to size guidelines, and minority districts can be carved out with great accuracy because decisions can be made on a street by street basis. Unfortunately, districts can also be carved out for less valid reasons, so the criteria used for making redistricting decisions are crucial. In the 1980s fiasco, there were no officially stated standards for drawing lines until after the fact, and the lines were drawn to reflect the wishes of the majority party on the Redistricting Commission. The legislation establishing the Redistricting Commission in the 1990s set forth basic standards for drawing lines and other safeguards to keep the process open and accountable, but there is no legal requirement that similar standards for drawing lines and safeguards be included in the future. So public awareness of what is involved in drawing lines is probably crucial to fair redistricting.


Farnum v. Burns, 548 F.Supp. 769 (D.R.I. 1982) (Initial Proceedings), Farnum v. Burns, 561 F.Supp. 83 (D.R.I. 1983).

Holmes v. Farmer, 475 A.2d 976 (R.I. 1984)

Opinion to the Governor, 101 R.I. 203,221 A2d 799 (R.I.. 1966)

The Rhode Island Government OWNERS MANUAL 1999-2000, The Secretary of State's Office of Public Information.

Wattson, Peter S., "1990s Supreme Court Redistricting Decisions," http://www.senate.leg.state.mn.us/departments/scr/REDIST/red907.htm, Updated October 26, 1999.


The League neither supports nor opposes candidates for office at any level of government.

© Copyright 2009-2017 League of Women Voters of RI. All rights reserved.
One Richmond Square, Suite 220 A-W Providence, RI 02906 (401) 339-9766
Contact Us

 LWVRI is a 501(c)(4) organization. Funding for this internet site was provided by the Rhode Island League of Women
 Voters Education Fund, a 501(c)(3) organization. The Education Fund provides members of the League of Women Voters,
 as well as the general public, with information and educational services on elections and on current public policy issues.
Information in regard to advocacy is not the intent of this internet site.