The Redistricting Disaster in the 1980s

LWV RI study material 2001

The best reasons for sound redistricting/reapportionment criteria and procedures are a simple recounting of the what happened in Rhode Island in the 1980s. The key actions of the Reapportionment Commission as reported in their minutes at that time were in brief:

    On June 18, 1981 the Reapportionment Commission held its first meeting. At that meeting the Commission voted to direct the staff to compile information on the subject of "deviation from the ideal."

    In late October and early November 1981, the Commission invited the public to five hearings in areas around the state to present their views on reapportionment.

    At the second meeting on January 22, 1982, the Commission announced plans to hold public hearings on the proposed districts, and approved the hiring of a consultant who began work in the fall of 1981. A new chair for the Commission was elected (the first chair resigned to take another office).

    On January 27, 1981 proposed Senate districts were presented, and on January 28 proposed House districts were presented. The "guidelines" for drawing the lines were also formally adopted at the January 28 meeting.

On January 15, 1982 the League of Women Voters complained to the Attorney General that the Commission had been violating the Open Meeting Law because it appeared they had been meeting without giving public notice, or even notifying all Commission members of the meetings. The Attorney General responded that there had been no violation of the Open Meeting Law because meetings held in November, December and January were either "work sessions" or political party meetings. The first chair of the Commission threatened to sue the League for libel.

Once the proposed districts were presented, critics of the plan complained of political gerrymandering, dilution of minority power, inequality of districts, and the short period of time available for evaluation and comment on plans. At public hearings held after the district plans were presented, members of the Commission were adversarial with various members of the public who spoke out against the Commission plan at the hearing.

What happened next is briefly described in the Procedural History given in Farnum v. Burns, 561 F.Supp. 83 (D.R.I. 1983). (The House reapportionment plan was also litigated, but that plan was affirmed with only minor changes. Holmes v, Farmer, 475 A.2d 976 (R.I. 1984))

On April 9, 1982 the Rhode Island General Assembly enacted a reapportionment statute based on the 1980 census. This statute repealed the 1974 reapportionment scheme and established new state senatorial and representative districts. Subsequently, Justice Bulman of the Rhode Island superior Court found that the 1982 reapportionment act violated the state and federal Constitutions. He enjoined the Secretary of State from conduction senatorial elections until a constitutional redistricting statute was enacted. Licht v. Quattrocchi, C.A. No 82-1494 (R.I. Sup. Ct. June 3, 1982). Justice Bulman's decision was affirmed without opinion by the Rhode Island Supreme Court Licht v. Quattrocchi, 449 A 2d 887 (RI 1982). *

On July 8, 1982 the Rhode Island Senate convened in a special session and passed a resolution creating a seven member Select Senate Redistricting Committee to develop a new senatorial reapportionment plan. The Rhode Island General Assembly enacted the plan recommended by the Redistricting Committee on July 20, 1082. The Governor, however, vetoed this plan because of his concern that it would not be possible to institute it and still hold the 1982 senatorial elections on schedule. The General Assembly then passed 82-H-9101 which revived the 1974 senatorial lines for use in the 1982 elections, and provided that the new senatorial reapportionment plan developed by the Redistricting Committee would take effect beginning with the 1984 elections.

On July 30, 1982 Jonathan K Farnum and James W. Hayes, Jr. individually and on behalf of all registered voters in Rhode Island, filed a complaint in this Court challenging the use of the 1974 senatorial lines in the 1982 elections under both the state and federal Constitutions. The parties agreed that, in light of the 1980 census, the 1974 district lines violated the one-person, one-vote principle of Reynolds v. Sims, 377, U.S. 533, 84 S.Ct. 1362, 12 L.Ed.2d 506 (1964). They disagreed as to whether the impending senate election should and could proceed under the unconstitutional 1974 lines to avoid disruption of the state's normal electoral processes.

On August 11, 1982 the U.S. District Court, D. Rhode Island decided that the 1974 lines could not be used, and on February 11, 1983 the court decided that "defendants' proposed Providence district lines constituted political gerrymandery." The state senatorial elections were finally held on June 21, 1983- more than seven months after elections should have been held. Until then "lame duck" legislators continued to serve, and make decisions on budget and other business. Between court costs and the costs of a special senate primary and election, Rhode Island taxpayers paid approximately $1.5 million to straighten everything out.

*Affirming opinion - Licht v. Quattrocchi, 454 A.2d 1210 (R.I. 1982)


Correspondence from Attorney General Dennis J. Roberts II to the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island and the League of Women Voters of Providence, Re: Rhode Island Redistricting Commission, February 12, 1982.

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

Hines, Marilyn A. & Gibbons, Mollie, Reapportionment: A Report on the Search for "Fair and Effective Representation" & A Model Constitutional Amendment, Common Cause, 1986.

"Opportunity knocks on GOP's door in the form of special Senate election." The Providence Journal, Page A-11, February, 25, 1983.

"Reapportionment Commission Charged with Ignoring Public," Press release, United States Commission on Civil Rights, New England Regional Office, February 22, 1982.

Redistricting in Rhode Island: Its Problems, Practice and Promise, Rhode Island Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, September, 1986.

"Redistricting panel head threatens to sue LWV," Providence Evening Bulletin, Page C-1, January 21, 1982.

"State Reapportionment Commission: Its Brief History," The Leaguer, League of Women Voters of Providence, February 1982.


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