We’re Asking Redistricting to Solve Problems It Just Can’t

I went to a public hearing for the Providence Committee on Ward Boundaries on February 22 with the goal of learning more. And I certainly did.

One of the most eye-opening moments came when committee chair Jessica Cigna and consultant Ryan Taylor from the much-maligned Election Data Services explained the problem of “pocket precincts” which are precincts with just a few dozen voters. Essentially, as maps are drawn or included for various layers of government; US House of Representatives, State Senate, State House of Representatives, city and town borders for municipal-wide offices, and municipal wards; they all get layered on top of each other, with every line intersecting. Each unique intersection creates areas that have to be served by different “ballot styles” – unique ballots specific to each of these overlapping boundaries with the correct menu of candidates to vote for. This ensures that people living in any given area only vote for the candidates who represent those areas.

As Cigna and Taylor explained, under state law, if a ballot style covers more than 3000 people, it has to be subdivided into multiple precincts (I’m assuming this exists for the very good reason to avoid long lines on Election Day, but I might be wrong). Increasing precincts increases costs to the local Board of Canvassers (each precinct has to be staffed for a full day), so a ballot style covering just a relatively small amount of people (the pocket precinct) is something to be avoided if at all possible, by ensuring each subsequent redistricting map matches, as much as possible, with the lines of a higher level districting process. Unfortunately, in Ward Boundaries Committee’s case, it has added a further complication of respecting neighborhood boundaries (for good reason), while still trying to avoid pocket precincts.

From just a practical map-drawing perspective, this reads to like deciding to step on a rake after having stepped on five rakes already. All while trying to balance a melon on your head.

But, the whole (vitally important!) redistricting process seems like strolling blindfolded through a field of rakes, with people actively bringing rakes to throw into the field. Over the course of an hour and half, members of the public raised issues to the Committee that included (as I heard and interpret them, this may not be accurate):

  • That a “brand new neighborhood” (the Jewelry District) be recognized or at least somehow politically represented in the City’s ward maps
  • That the five blocks between Wayland Square and Paterson Park be returned to Ward 2
  • That Benefit Street to be unified in a single ward (preferably Ward 2)
  • That the historical legacy of the 1868 annexation of eastern Cranston cease to have a political impact on representation and neighborhood boundaries in South Providence and the reality on the ground be reflected in the political representation of the neighborhood
  • That the Committee consider “cui bono” when it draws the ward boundaries
  • That more wards be added
  • That residents on the South Side have as much ability to stop development from happening as residents elsewhere in the city, or else become politically strong enough that the development that is happening there is spread around the city (and state)
  • That the Committee take into account new/future development when drawing the lines
  • That the historical legacy of structural racism that has resulted in a white-majority north and east of the city and a Hispanic-majority south and west of the city be at least acknowledged
  • That any and all ward changes are explained in detail on a street-by-street basis
  • That the Committee audit and correct the 2020 US Census (or use another data source)
  • The legacy of structural and historical racism against the city’s Black residents not go unacknowledged or unaddressed
  • That a better political system be created so that residents of color have better representation and homeowner rights
  • That we think beyond just basic politics and consider things like housing, healthcare, environmental justice when redistricting
  • That the city’s Black residents have representation, especially in regards to Mount Hope
  • That the Committee collaborate with the community (which I want to point out is a really important word that can have an array of contested meanings) and acknowledge the distrust in the process

There is so much here. There is more here than redistricting can possibly do (and other things that are just beyond the scope of the Committee on Ward Boundaries’ legal powers). On top of the regular six values that have to be addressed, the City Charter’s criteria for redistricting (slide 4 in the link), the need to avoid pocket precincts while respecting neighborhood boundaries, this is an incredible weight to put on the process.

And yet, it’s totally understandable why this happens. There is limited political competition within the city (and none in the general election) and the City Council is extraordinarily bad at having these conversations and arriving at permanent resolutions (and would rather avoid any kind of discussion of these issues anyways). It’s not like people are silent about what’s going on here. While some of these complaints are specific to redistricting, a lot of them have long been raised at all manner public hearings, community engagement, and other public forums.

Redistricting can’t solve all these problems, but this period in the cycle of Providence politics, when both the wards are redrawn and the Charter is potentially amended (the latter, much more important, process is being conducted in a much more closed-off manner), opens up the possibility that they are not so intractable. Especially when you put new people on these committees, there’s at least a sense that there’s a chance to education. There is a brief window when a lot of things seem possible.

Relief is not happening in the normal process from the ostensible representatives of the people, so the people seek out other ways get their issues addressed.

There Are Better Ways

Redistricting shouldn’t be such a fight. It’s not fair to ask it to address what our leaders fail to. These are fights that should be happening through the normal legislative process. And there are ways to move towards a better politics that can at least make redistricting less fraught.

If people want legislative districts, then one straightforward solution that relieves pressure on redistricting is multi-seat districts. For instance, instead of 15 wards, elect five people from three much larger wards. As long as you don’t make it so each voter gets the same number of votes as there are seats, you should get more representative councilors. Minority voting groups that act in organized manner, be they political or ethnic minorities, should be able to vote in someone who can represent their interests under such a system.

You can add in different electoral methods under this system too. I’m not going to get into them all, but it’s entirely possible to create methods which result in roughly near proportional representation of the city’s political parties (as much as I might despise the Republican Party, 17.8% of Providence voted for President Trump in 2020, and those people have zero representation on the Council when they would have two or three seats under a proportional system).

You could also go to a proportional, citywide system where there are no districts. Have councilors run as lists of candidates in a proportional system (candidates are listed in order and then each list selects from those candidates in that order as they win seats), and that would vastly simplify election administration in Providence. Pocket precincts would now be something created only at the state level. Though state law would still split up precincts, you wouldn’t need nearly as many precincts and voters would be freer to vote in a convenient location (if both the state and city went to no-district list systems, voters would basically be free to vote anywhere within their municipality, which is how a lot of other countries run their elections).

Best of all, such systems could see lists form specifically to represent the interests of racial and ethnic minorities. Imagine lists specifically running to push for the interests of Black or Latino communities; or a list that specifically wants to represent the interests of the South Side. They might not win a majority, but they could control one or two crucial seats, and other political parties would have to negotiate and/or coopt their policies. This would start putting voters back in the drivers’ seat of politics.

Alternatively (or concurrently), the City could impose, or lists could self-impose, racial proportions on the lists’ candidates (e.g. if only 33% of Providence is non-Hispanic white residents, then only 33% of your list should be made up of non-Hispanic white candidates).

None of this would solve everything. Politics still has to be done, compromises reached, legislation enacted. But it would take the pressure off redistricting by either eliminating or reducing its centrality as a place where the future is possible to the political system. It would start fostering competition and promoting electoral agendas. We could set ourselves towards having the conversations we want to have, instead of avoiding them and allowing them to fester. We could hold our leaders to account, force them to make promises and keep those promises. We could start having these sorts of fights in the places were supposed to, in the legislature.

At its heart, redistricting is not a tool for political accountability, though many attempt to use it as such. It’s a tool for deciding who gets to vote where. And while that has real ramifications for who counts, and who gets represented, redistricting itself is simply not able to bear the weight we’re putting on it. We need to think around it or beyond it.

I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from The Left Hand of Darkness:

I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?

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