By DANIEL KITTREDGE It may feel like the last election season just wrapped up not too long ago. But the next cycle isn't too far off - and there's a great deal of work to be done before candidates file declaration forms and voters begin mulling their
It may feel like the last election season just wrapped up not too long ago. But the next cycle isn’t too far off – and there’s a great deal of work to be done before candidates file declaration forms and voters begin mulling their choices.
On Tuesday, Aug. 10, the city’s Redistricting Commission will host an initial public hearing as it prepares for the drawing of new ward maps in Cranston based on the results of the 2020 Census. The gathering begins at 6 p.m. in City Hall’s Council Chambers.
Nicholas Lima, the city’s registrar and elections director, said the hearing – which will come just days before the Census Bureau’s anticipated release of long-awaited redistricting data – represents a key part of the local effort to get a jump-start on the process, given the compressed timeframe facing officials due to the pandemic.
“What we’re doing here is trying to be as proactive as possible … We’re trying to get as much work on the front-end done as we can,” he said.
While the Census Bureau earlier this year released the broad population figures used to divvy up congressional seats among states, the granular data used for drawing specific legislative district boundaries – including Cranston’s six wards for City Council and School Committee seats – has been significantly delayed.
Those numbers are finally slated to arrive Aug. 16, followed by another release at the end of September. The data in both releases will be identical, but the latter will be formatted for easier public consumption.
Receiving the redistricting data, Lima said, will represent a significant step forward. But there are numerous other aspects of the process ahead, all with a looming “hard” deadline in the spring of 2022.
A central focus will be the state’s timeline for finalizing new General Assembly district maps. Lima said the hope is that those lines for House and Senate seats will be drawn and accepted by January or February.
Having the state’s lines drawn before local ward boundaries are considered, Lima said, is a key step in limiting the number of “pocket precincts” – in other words, making sure the political boundaries on both the local and state level are as close as possible.
“If we can identify these pockets that shouldn’t exist and try to close them off by making sure that our ward lines line up with the state lines, we can end up with a few fewer precincts and also give the precincts that we do have more centrally [polling places] located for the neighborhoods they actually serve,” Lima said.
Once the state’s process is complete, the city’s Redistricting Commission – which consists of the three members of the Board of Canvassers, under an ordinance approved earlier this year – would forward proposals for ward maps to the City Council. The council will then hold its own hearings and vote on a proposal to forward to the mayor for his approval or veto.
Completing the process sometime around May 2022 – “sort of our hard deadline,” Lima said – will be critical for two related reasons. First, once the new ward lines are set, the city will conduct a mass mailing to all of its roughly 60,000 registered voters to notify them of their updated polling place. While it will remain unchanged for many, and likely most, voters, it is still an essential part of the process.
“It’s probably the largest single mailing that the city as a whole ever does,” Lima said.
The notification to voters of their updated ward and precinct is also vital because of the arrival of the three-day candidate declaration window at the end of June 2022. Prospective candidates, Lima noted, must know whether the redistrict process has changed the ward in which they reside.
Additionally, this year’s redistricting process will be the first conducted under new charter guidelines approved by voters in November 2020.
The amended language of the charter’s provision governing the redistricting process 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 the address of any candidate or official in the creation of new maps.
Getting an early start on the work that can be completed, Lima said, will aid officials later in the process if any unforeseen complications further strain an already tight timeline. That’s where next week’s hearing, and other public forums planned in the fall, come into play.
The Aug. 10 hearing is specifically meant to gather public feedback regarding a “draft redistricting neighborhood map” – in essence, a guide to those “local neighborhoods” and “communities of interest” cited in the new charter language.
As Lima put it: “You can’t comply with the charter if you don’t define what the charter tells you to comply with. And this at least defines it, to the extent possible that you can define something that’s ultimately subjective.”
He added: “By giving ourselves a guide, we can get a very good idea, if we need to place a district line or a ward line in an area, which lines are preferable to use without breaking up a smaller community, a smaller neighborhood.”
Lima credited Maria Giarrusso, the city’s geographic information system, or GIS, manager, for doing the “bulk” of the work on creating the draft map and other tools being used in the process. A key part of the work has been updating a neighborhood map that was created by the Planning Commission roughly 40 years ago.
Through a link on the Canvassing Department’s website (cranstonri.gov/departments/canvassing-department/redistricting), residents can find additional information about the redistricting process, along with interactive tools developed in-house to review census blocks and population data.
Cranston has also been added to the online tool Districtr (districtr.org), which was created by the MGGG Redistricting Lab at Tufts University. Lima said Districtr is an “extremely user friendly” interface that allows users to build their own districts – or, in Cranston’s case, wards – and submit the map to city officials for consideration. Currently, Cranston’s 2010 Census data is being used on the site, but it is set to be updated once the new figures arrive.
“This is the kind of public engagement that we’re looking at … Any citizen of the city can hop online and take a look at what will eventually be multiple plans,” Lima said.
At the Aug. 10 hearing, the tools will be a bit less high-tech. Lima said there will be maps set out with Sharpies and highlighters available for members of the public in attendance to offer their recommendations on how the neighborhoods and communities should be defined for the purposes of redistricting.
Some neighborhoods, like Knightsville or Pawtuxet Village, are well defined, Lima noted. But other geographic designations, such as Alpine Estates, remain more informal and fluid.
Another benefit of the city’s jump-start on the process, Lima said, will be the ability to offer more complete feedback during the state’s redistricting effort. If, for example, a House district line runs through a cul-de-sac road or otherwise separates a particular neighborhood, local officials will have had a chance to identify it and lobby state officials early in the process.
“We’re in a great position to provide that type of feedback,” he said. “I hope other cities and towns will kind of do the same thing, because it’s helpful.”
Lima also said officials are conducting a “data cleanup” as they move through the process – for example, removing a since-demolished building from the city’s central precinct registry.
“While we’re doing this, we’re also catching a lot of things in the system that we’ll improve in the future,” he said.
What should residents expect to emerge from the redistricting process? It’s impossible to know before the full Census data arrives, but Lima said a trend he’s watching for is the growth of Ward 4, which covers Western Cranston.
“We know the city as a whole is growing, but we know Ward 4 is growing quickly,” he said. Depending on how population growth is distributed through the city, he said, Ward 4 could be reduced in physical size – resulting in, potentially, a westward shift in the boundaries of other wards.
The early start on the redistricting process, Lima said, has likely put Cranston “ahead of any other city and town in the state.” While it is “still very, very early in the process,” he said, the work to this point has been “productive.”
“As an elections official, this is kind of what you live for … It’s an opportunity to make things better,” he said.