Drawing the Line: Ensuring proper representation in city councils

Last month, Woonsocket’s Racist Policies Review Advisory Board, a deliberative body intended to identify discriminatory practices in city policy, voted to recommend the city council’s seven at-large seats switch instead to seven warded seats. Municipal legislature races rarely get much notice during election cycles in the Ocean State, a fact that can mask crucial issues. Woonsocket is rapidly becoming a majority-minority community; estimates from the last census put its person of color population around 40%. Its governing body doesn’t reflect this, with six white male members and only one woman on the city council.

“It’s been that way for a couple of decades,” says Alex Kithes, running for re-election to city council with a progressive slate. “I’m not sure when they were removed but it was almost definitely the wards were removed to avoid too much representation from working-class and racially diverse [communities].” Woonsocket Democrats, the slate Kithes is running with, has recently taken up warding Woonsocket as a campaign issue. People are talking about it at the door when they canvass. While they don’t have a specific plan whether to go full ward or with a hybrid model, Kithes says they are interested in talking more with the community to find out what the people want, but stressed the need for an independent third party to draw lines and avoid classic, Rhode Island-style corruption.

“At large elections have significant problems,” says John Marion, executive director of Common Cause RI. “In fact, they have been outlawed by Congress for federal elections. The most significant problem is they can be used to deny representation to candidates of color.” Woonsocket is an especially egregious example. Five of the members live within a half-mile radius of each other, less than a 10-minute walk away. Woonsocket is small, but not that small.

Across Rhode Island, at-large seats are pretty common. Out of the 237 city/town council races, only 74 of them represent clearly defined wards. Even then, the only municipalities with no at-large or citywide elections for a council seat are Providence, Warwick, Coventry and Lincoln. Cities like Cranston and Newport have a large fraction coming from citywide votes. In most Rhode Island towns, especially out in the sticks, there isn’t a significant minority population for this to be a problem (note that the small numbers of POC populations out in the suburbs and historical segregation/redlining is a whole other problem outside the scope of this article). A common trend in communities with substantial minority populations and racially polarized voting is a lack of substantial or even symbolic representation for these communities. Drawing fresh wards in a city like Woonsocket, however, could have its own issues when it comes to representation.

The possibility of gerrymandering, that proud corrupt American pastime, cannot be ignored. It’s front line news again this year, with President Trump ending the census early, a key way that determines how districts are drawn. Gerrymandering’s ultimate goal is to dilute the votes of some persons, to empower others. Organizations like Common Cause oppose all racial and partisan gerrymandering; they were the chief plaintiff in last year’s Supreme Court case Rucho v. Common Cause. The Supremes ruled 5-4 that the court did not have authority to review such political issues. You’re allowed to pause for laughter here.

Common Cause supports the use of independent districting commissions by cities and towns to ensure fair districting. Membership is typically appointed by a non-partisan third party or by lottery. Their recommendations will be non-binding unless municipalities write it into their governing city charters. If written into the charter, a city will always be under possible threat of a lawsuit.

“Redistricting is about tradeoffs,” says Maron. “When establishing criteria, whether by ordinance or charter, policymakers must prioritize what values they want to emphasize. For some it might be political competitiveness, and for others compactness.” All districts are bound to comply with the “One Person, One Vote” decisions handed down by the Supreme Court during the ‘60s. See why we said pause for laughter?

Some towns are facing districting questions on the ballot this year. Question 8 in Cranston, if passed, adds to the city charter that drawing districts should result in compact contiguous districts that are bounded by local geographic boundaries (such as roads or other natural features) that respect local neighborhoods. Each district would also need to have similar populations to each other, to avoid vote dilution. The Ocean State’s own local leaders will be redrawing district lines in the next few years. Marion says the pandemic delayed the census, which will cause new district lines to be rushed. 

For Woonsocket, the next step would be for the city council to take the issue up. They would have to convene a charter change committee to review any changes to the city charter, most likely after the completion of the 2020 census. Voters would then have their say in the following election. Woonsocket’s charter has a provision that requires it to be revisited at least once every decade, so the time may come soon when the city council is required to convene such a committee. With 14 candidates running for one of the seven council seats this fall, it’s anyone’s guess as to what the final outcome on warding the city will be in the coming years.