By DANIEL KITTREDGE Even as the U.S. Census Bureau continues to push back the planned release of full data from its national population count last year, Cranston has moved to get a head start on its redistricting process ahead of the 2022 election. The
Even as the U.S. Census Bureau continues to push back the planned release of full data from its national population count last year, Cranston has moved to get a head start on its redistricting process ahead of the 2022 election.
The City Council’s Ordinance Committee on Feb. 11 unanimously backed a proposal to create a Redistricting Committee, which would be comprised of the three members of the Board of Canvassers. Council President Chris Paplauskas introduced the measure on behalf of Nicholas Lima, the city’s registrar and elections director.
“This is the foundation for us to get started in this process,” Lima told council members ahead of the committee’s vote.
In a typical Census cycle, states and municipalities would be expecting detailed population data from the Census Bureau in just a few weeks.
The pandemic and circumstances in the nation’s capital, however, have significantly delayed the release of the figures.
Overall population figures for states, which are used to determine how the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are apportioned, are on track to arrive by the end of April. Typically, those figures are due by the end of the Census year. Rhode Island remains at risk of losing one of its two House seats based on the state population numbers.
A more detailed set of numbers used in the drawing of local election maps – from congressional districts down to municipal wards and precincts – had been expected by July under the revised schedule from the Census Bureau.
Officials announced last week, however, that the timeline has been pushed back further, with a new target date of Sept. 30. The additional time is being used to more fully evaluate the data for accuracy ahead of its release.
The delay will create major issues in some states, particularly those with elections scheduled this year or primaries slated for early in 2022. Rhode Island’s late statewide primary, to be held in September 2022, provides some relief, but the process of drawing new maps will nonetheless require a far more accelerated schedule than is usual.
Lima told council members that Cranston is among the first communities in the state to get its redistricting process underway. Last week’s vote, he said, represents the “start of a year-long process.”
“We want to spend the next several months getting as much of the foundational work that we can get done laid out,” he said.
A major consideration, Lima said, is the General Assembly’s work to create new state House and Senate district maps once the full redistricting data arrives. During the city’s redistricting process, he said, officials are charged with drawing ward and precinct maps that hew as closely as possible to the state legislative districts – avoiding “little pocket precincts that have 40 votes or 75 voters, or 150 voters.”
Under an ideal timeline, Lima said, officials would ““really ramp up redistricting in the fall and the winter” and be prepared to proceed toward final approval of local maps in spring 2022. The candidacy declaration period for local offices arrives in June 2022, he noted, meaning the process needs to be complete by early May “at the very latest” so candidates and voters know their wards and districts.
Because of the delays from the federal level, however, the state’s redistricting process is scheduled to take longer – meaning there will be “significant operational challenges with redistricting, the likes of which we have not seen before.”
“There’s a lot that has to happen at the very tail end of this process. So because of that, we’re trying to be as proactive as possible,” he said, adding: “While the process will be delayed at the front end … it cannot be delayed in the back end, because in 2022 we have an election.”
The Redistrict Commission was also comprised of the members of Board of Canvassers the last time the city undertook a redistricting process, in 2011 and 2012. Lima said the commission will conduct a “very public” process that includes hearings and opportunities for members of the community to submit their own proposals for what the city’s ward boundaries should look like.
The City Council, Lima noted, remains “fundamentally in charge of the policy element” and will vote on the final proposals submitted by the Redistricting Commission. He said he anticipated the panel will provide “multiple scenarios” for consideration.
City voters in November 2020 overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment that adds new language aimed at curbing gerrymandering in the redistricting process. The amendment requires that ward lines “respect the geographic integrity of local neighborhoods or local communities of interest” – utilizing “major roads or natural features” as much as possible – and prohibits consideration of a candidate or official’s address in the creation of new maps.
Once the new maps have been adopted, Lima said, all of the city’s nearly 60,000 registered voters will receiving a mailing outlining the new wards and precincts. That part of the process carries a “significant cost,” he said, and additional information will be presented during the city’s upcoming budget process.
One issue sure to be raised during the coming redistricting process will be the counting of the prison population at the Adult Correctional Institutions in the drawing of the city’s ward maps. In 2014, the ACLU of Rhode Island mounted an unsuccessful court challenge to the city’s practice of including prisoners in its redistricting.
Lynette Labinger, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU, addressed the Ordinance Committee last week prior to its vote on the Redistricting Commission. She urged officials “not to include people incarcerated at the ACI as though they were residents of the city of Cranston,” calling it an “unfair and inequitable” practice that “effectively gives the Ward 6 residents and voters a disproportionate influence in city government.”
Labinger said while the Superior Court did not side with the ACLU in its challenge, the judge in the case found that the decision over whether to include prisoners in the population count is “uniquely political” and within the discretion of city officials.
“I think fundamentally, it is an unfair situation,” she said.
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, has also advocated for the city to change its policy in terms of counting the prison population.
In terms of the broader redistricting process, Marion on Monday said the latest announcement from the Census Bureau creates an additional degree of urgency.
“Because our September 2022 primary is among the latest in the nation Rhode Island has been best positioned to deal with the delayed census results,” he said. “However, with the recent announcement that the redistricting data will possibly not arrive until Sept. 30, when it normally would arrive as soon as this week, we need to be conscientious. This could be used as an excuse by the General Assembly to rush the redistricting process for the state legislature and therefore take insufficient public input. The delay could also squeeze communities like Cranston who have to wait until the state process is completed to draw maps because they need to know where the new legislative district lines have been drawn. Again, if municipalities are rushed, they might not consider public input.”