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Maps: Here’s how population changed in RI Assembly districts – and why it matters

Politics
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With Rhode Island’s population becoming more diverse and shifting northward, the state’s urban core could soon command greater influence in the General Assembly.

Yet political observers aren’t sure at this point how that might help or hurt different factions of the state’s major political parties, as newly released U.S. Census data shows the state’s fastest- and slowest-growing legislative districts are ideologically diverse.

“There are no obvious political implications to these population shifts,” said Adam Myers, a political science professor at Providence College, who helped Target 12 create maps showing how the population changed across the state’s 38 Senate districts and 75 House districts since the last time political boundaries were drawn in 2012.

“If you look at districts that lost population, they include a mix of progressives, establishment Democrats and some Republicans,” he added. “For fast-growing districts, some of them are represented by progressives and some more traditional Democrats.”

Like most of the country, Rhode Island saw its population grow fastest in urban areas, such as Central Falls, Providence and Pawtucket, along with some suburban areas, including Cumberland and East Greenwich. The seats in those communities are currently held by Democrats.

Unlike much of the country, however, Rhode Island didn’t see widespread population declines in the state’s more rural communities, many in the western part of the state, which are mostly represented by Republicans.

“Those areas of the state are not growing super-fast, but they don’t seem to be shrinking,” Myers said.

In addition to showing population shifts, the new census data offers an early window into how the state’s legislative districts might need to be redrawn as part of the redistricting process that’s now officially underway in Rhode Island.

“Some districts are going to have to shed significant amounts of people in order to meet the requirement of equal population, particularly in Providence and Central Falls, and that’s going to enhance the power of those communities because there will likely be more representatives and senators in the urban core of Rhode Island,” Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John Marion told Target 12.

In accordance with federal law, each legislative district must contain roughly the same number of residents. To make the math work – a process known as redistricting – a panel of mostly lawmakers redraws boundaries every 10 years following the decennial census, and it’s a consistent source of political friction.

“We’ve seen it for decades that legislative leadership uses this process to reward their friends and punish their enemies,” Marion said.  

In many states, redistricting means Democrats and Republicans battle to outflank one another so that the redrawn boundaries help ensure their respected parties either maintain or gain political power over the next decade. In states like Rhode Island where one party dominates, however, the process is far more likely to create intraparty conflict.  

“The biggest impact could be on Democratic primaries,” 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming said after reviewing the population shifts. “There’s always politics in redistricting. It happens all over the country and Rhode Island is no different.”

House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, both Democrats, have promised a fair and equitable process that will be open to public scrutiny. But the legislative leaders already have been meeting privately for months with the state’s longtime redistricting czar, Kimball Brace of Election Data Services Inc., who’s received more than $400,000 for his work since July 2020, according to invoice records.

And at least one lawmaker -- Sen. Tiara Mack, a Providence Democrat -- has raised concerns publicly about Shekarchi’s and Ruggerio’s picks for the 18-member redistricting commission that will oversee the redrawing process. The panel includes former state Sen. Harold Metts, who she defeated last year.

“The choice of choosing the people on the redistricting committee is a clear power grab and move to keep diverse voices out of the next decade of decisions,” said Mack, a leading member of the Senate's progressive wing.

Ruggerio has pushed back on the criticism, arguing Metts helps make up a diverse group of people who bring unique perspectives to the redistricting team and noting his involvement in a 2002 lawsuit that helped increase minority representation.

Besides Democrats, the redistricting panel includes just four Republican lawmakers, highlighting the minority party’s small size in Rhode Island, where it's struggled to gain seats over the past three decades.

But it’s not all bad news for the GOP. Fleming said while it’s too early to know for sure, he’s somewhat skeptical Democrats will spend too much energy going after Republican territory when they already have so much power across the state.

“I don’t see Democrats grabbing those seats because they’re such Republican areas,” he said.

Myers also points to the state’s shifting demographics as representing a potential opportunity for the Republican Party. Hispanic and Latino residents are the fastest-growing population in Rhode Island. And while they make up large portions of Central Falls and Providence, which are squarely in Democrats' corner, President Donald Trump made gains in those areas during the 2020 election.

President Biden still earned the vast majority of votes in those communities, but Trump’s share of the total votes increased in both cities compared to his election against Hilary Clinton four years earlier.

“Again, this is a long-term proposition,” Myers said. “But it’s at least possible this can over time fuel some gains for Republicans in Rhode Island. I don’t anticipate that happening next year, or even in 2024, but over time it could.”

Fleming mostly agreed, saying the GOP nationally has an opportunity to champion the interests of Hispanic and Latino voters, which would likely affect voting patterns across the country. But he warns the Republican Party locally hasn’t made much of an effort to try and capitalize on that idea.  

“We saw it with Donald Trump, but we didn’t see it further down the ticket,” Fleming said. “Republicans have to build a strong ground game. I know they realize it. They just have to execute it.”

The new redistricting panel is expected to meet before the end of August, at which point Marion said it should start to become clearer how the state’s future political boundaries will be recast. He will have an eye out for any proposed maps that show some incumbent lawmaker no longer lives in the district they represent now.

“I don’t want to say that every time somebody is moved out of their district it means there are shenanigans,” Marion said. “But in all likelihood, it means shenanigans.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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