Rod Driver

From The Providence Journal, March 28, 2000

Fixing the legislative downsizing mess


DOWNSIZING the Rhode Island General Assembly seemed like such a good idea in July 1994 that both the House and Senate approved it -- unanimously! But as the effective dates draw nearer, it has occurred to some incumbents that downsizing could result in their being ex-incumbents after 2002. So they want to rescind the plan.

Some argue that downsizing will hurt minorities. It was once explained to me that minority candidates have trouble getting elected because minorities tend not to vote. So to assure their success it is necessary to create legislative districts containing super majorities of minorities. (Presumably, this is best done if you have many small districts to work with.)

Others who now oppose downsizing suggest that it will be easier for lobbyists to influence a smaller body of legislators. This is a naive idea. Anyone who has served in the General Assembly knows that, regardless of the size of the legislature, most of the time lobbyists need only deal with three or four legislative leaders.

Actually, reducing our oversized legislature should yield a more responsible body. The 50 senators and 100 representatives in today's General Assembly introduce 3,000 bills a year. This means hundreds of bills in each committee, and about 1,000 coming to the floor of each house. It is almost impossible for a legislator to understand the bills in just his or her own committee. Fewer legislators, it is hoped, will generate fewer bills, making it more possible for members to follow what's going on.

Another reasonable expectation would be that fewer districts would mean simpler maps of legislative districts. One would expect to need fewer polling places for elections, and to have an easier task determining the Senate and House districts of any Rhode Island resident. But the General Assembly dashed these expectations in 1994.

When the original downsizing bill came before the House on June 2, 1994, I, then a state representative, tried to amend it to require "nesting," i.e., forming Senate districts by combining House districts. But some representatives argued that this would make it harder to create districts favoring special constituencies, and they killed the amendment. (Actually, the modest limitation that nesting imposes on gerrymandering is one of the main arguments in favor of nesting.)

To make matters worse, when the downsizing bill was completed, not only did it not require nesting, it effectively prohibited it! This was because of the blunder of calling for 38 Senate districts and 75 House districts. Had the numbers been 38 and 76, then with nesting, redistricting could have been accomplished with just 76 distinct "legislative" voting districts.

In 2001, a commission will be appointed to draw new district lines, and it will discover that the numbers 38 and 75 make nesting totally impossible anywhere in the state. Because 38 and 75 have no common factors, there will have to be a minimum of 112 different "legislative" voting districts for the new smaller legislature. The actual number will probably exceed 200 when geographical constraints and gerrymandering requests are accommodated. (These numbers are for legislative districts only. Introduce geographical and municipal boundaries and size limitations and we will probably have more than 600 voting districts, many of which will serve fewer than 100 voters.)

The last redistricting commission (in 1991) was under pressure to create special districts for incumbent legislators. So the results were pretty well screwed up. With 50 Senate and 100 House districts they ended up with 191 legislative voting districts instead of the 100 that would have sufficed without gerrymandering. (As it turned out, only four Senate districts in the entire state are made up of pairs of House districts.) Adding municipal and ward boundaries, plus geographical constraints and size limitations, brought us to the present total of 566 polling places, several of which accommodate just a handful of voters.

In principle, the forthcoming redistricting problem described above could easily be solved. It would require that the legislature this year offer the voters a constitutional amendment to increase the size of the House to 76 members. Ideally, it should also require that each of the 38 Senate districts be comprised of exactly two House districts.