Monday, June 7, 2010

Political Scene: Redrawing Rhode Island’s political map will cost $1.5 million

Monday, June 7, 2010

By Katherine Gregg and By RANDAL EDGAR

Journal State House Bureau

Deep within the new $7.8-billion state budget is a reminder that the next General Assembly will have the once-a-decade job of redrawing Rhode Island’s political map.

The tax-and-spending plan that cleared the Assembly last week included $1.5 million for lawmakers to find and hire a consultant to help them determine how population changes over the last decade might change the state’s legislative and congressional districts.

House spokesman Larry Berman said the General Assembly intends to begin by issuing a request for proposals this summer.

The money helps account for the legislature’s own record-high new budget: a proposed $39,049,144, compared with the $37.4 million the lawmakers appropriated for themselves at this point last year.

But “given the fact that the software to draw districts is now free and available on the Internet, $1.5 million seems like a pretty steep price,” said John Marion, executive director of the citizens’ advocacy group Common Cause, when he learned of this budget set-aside.

Elaborating, he said: “The ground has shifted because of the changes in computing power and I believe the advocates (and in R.I. that means us) will be on a much more level playing field with those trying to gerrymander.”

Marion said Common Cause has “already begun to assemble the resources and expertise to launch a citizens model redistricting commission that will allow us to offer an alternative set of districts to those the legislature will draw. The commission will take public input to establish a set of criteria for redistricting and then we (probably Common Cause) will draw the districts to their specifications and make them public.

“We hope this will put sufficient pressure on those who make the official districts and they will then resist the temptation to gerrymander,” he said.

To hear Marion, it is not that hard “to program a computer to perform redistricting,” as long as you know computer-speak.

He explains: “Two professors, Micah Altman at Harvard University and Michael McDonald at George Mason University created an open-source program, in the R statistical programming language, that allows the computer to draw the districts.”And so it begins.

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