Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Columnist Ed Fitzpatrick: Who should be redrawing districts after 2010 census?

At the Common Cause Rhode Island annual meeting, executive director John M. Marion pointed out an object looming on the political horizon: the once-a-decade process of redrawing political maps.

The Oct. 29 event drew about 140 people to Rhodes on the Pawtuxet. A flier noted that during its 39-year history, the “citizens’ lobby” has fought for an independent Ethics Commission, a merit-selection process for picking state judges and the “separation of powers” amendment to the state Constitution.

The flier also outlined the group’s “vision for tomorrow,” saying in part: “As we begin the next federal census in 2010, we will push for reforms that will make the goals of redistricting serve our citizens, and not the politicians. District boundaries should reflect communities, not incumbency protection.”

Marion said, “One of the leading problems in Rhode Island is that elections are not competitive. So we are going to try hard to make this the fairest redistricting it can be.”

I covered the last legislative redistricting process (in 2001 and 2002), and it was quite a ride, literally. I followed the redistricting commission from Woonsocket to Newport for public hearings. I wrote about the lawsuits and the charges of gerrymandering. I thought about compactness and contiguity. (And haven’t thought about them since.)

Back then, the process was especially complex and fraught with political peril because the General Assembly wasn’t just redistricting to reflect new census figures; it was also downsizing the House from 100 to 75 members and the Senate from 50 to 38 members to reflect a 1994 voter mandate.

Still, the next redistricting (based on 2010 census data) is bound to be intriguing. As Marion noted, “people are rewarded and punished politically with districts,” and with a battle under way to be the next House speaker, “the districts could reflect who supported the winners and who supported the losers.”

The process will also involve redrawing the congressional districts, and Marion warned that “somewhere down the road” Rhode Island could lose a district because it has some of the country’s least-populated congressional districts.

Redistricting is an intensely political process. But Marion noted that in 2008, California voters approved Proposition 11, which shifted the power to redraw many political maps from the state legislature to a 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission. Also, he noted, the Ohio secretary of state is hosting a redistricting competition put on by groups such as Common Cause Ohio. The legislature will still redraw districts in 2011, but the contest will show what districts might look like based on criteria other than protecting incumbents.

Marion said Common Cause will push for a Rhode Island redistricting commission that does not include legislators or their representatives. A similar effort failed last time. But this time Common Cause also might create a “model redistricting commission” that would “show citizens what the maps could look like if politics was removed,” he said. (The idea comes from Yale Law School Prof. Heather Gerken.)

“Ultimately, I think the goal is to have something like California or Iowa, which is held up as a model, to have redistricting that isn’t done at the behest of the legislature,” Marion said. “The question is who should draw the districts — the people who have the most to gain by drawing districts that protect incumbents, or the voters who inhabit those districts?”

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