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:
- that the minority group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district;
- that it is politically cohesive, that is, it usually votes for the same candidates; and
- 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.
LIST OF WORKS CONSULTED
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.