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As redistricting approaches, Census delay makes RI's late primary a 'blessing in disguise'

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Whether or not Rhode Island will lose one of its seats in the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2022 election remains to be seen.

But a delay in the reporting of results from the 2020 Census should have a limited effect as the state and its 39 cities and towns prepare for the process of drawing new district and ward maps, according to John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.

“Rhode Island doesn’t have our [statewide] primary until September [2022], and so that gives us a big buffer,” Marion during an appearance on the Herald’s Radio Beacon podcast this week. “And so we will be the least affected state in the country by the delayed Census results, because we have the latest primary in the United States. Normally, [Common Cause does not] support a super-late primary. It makes it difficult to run elections. But for purposes of redistricting, it’s a blessing in disguise, because now we don’t have to rush.”

Initial figures from last year’s national population count – including state population numbers – were due to be released Dec. 31. But disruptions resulting from the pandemic, as well as issues that arose during the waning weeks of the Trump administration, led to the recent announcement that those figures will be delayed until April.

Rhode Island has long been considered at risk of losing one of its two seats in the U.S. House, which is capped at 435 members with seats apportioned among the states based on population. The reporting of the initial population numbers in the spring, he said, will reveal whether that expected development comes to pass.

“It looks like we’ll know that initial number … sometime in April,” he said. “Until then, we’re in a state of suspense as to whether or not we did a good job.”

Marion said as states in the South and West continue to grow, Rhode Island’s population has been “treading water” at approximately one million people for many years.

“I don’t think there’s anything to suggest that trend has changed,” he said.

He also noted there are “some idiosyncratic” states that have bucked the broader population trends. California, for example – thought of by many as “the growth state” – is on track to lose a congressional seat for the first time in its history. Minnesota, meanwhile, is gaining population, unlike many other states in the upper Midwest and Northeast. Alabama, in contrast to many of its neighbors in the South, is losing population.

For the first time, Rhode Island launched a Complete Count effort as part of the 2020 Census. Common Cause played a key role in the effort, organizing various stakeholders and planning a wide-ranging outreach effort in hopes of maximizing the state’s count.

The pandemic, of course, created significant obstacles.

“All the community events were canceled, all the festivals, all the parades where we were going to have a presence,” Marion said. “So it almost all shifted online.”

Marion said the Complete Count effort did find success in one aspect of its outreach due to an unwelcome consequence of the coronavirus. With demand up at food distribution events due to the hardships created by the crisis, he said, those settings proved a valuable means of reaching members of “hard-to-count” communities – those which have been historically undercounted.

“I think it was successful in terms of reaching people that way,” he said.

He added: “We did the best we could … It’s tough to measure, and it was the first time that Rhode Island’s ever had a statewide effort to try to reach people. As I like to say, even if we just reach one more person than we did in 2010, it was worth it. And I’m optimistic we reached a lot more than one person.”

In terms of Rhode Island’s response rate to the Census – meaning the number of people who responded affirmatively before a Census worker came to knock on their door – Marion said Rhode Island was in the “middle of the pack” nationally.

“We were neither great nor terrible, but that isn’t necessarily an indicator of whether we grew or shrank,” he said, noting that some states, like Minnesota, “always respond at high rates.”

When it comes to the delayed reporting of Census data, Marion pointed to some key issues that arose at the federal level in the past several months.

After the Supreme Court in 2019 rejected the Trump administration’s bid to add a citizenship question to the Census, he said, the administration moved to another plan – utilizing government databases in an attempt to provide the citizenship status of all the country’s adults as part of the Census data, which could lead to the exclusion of undocumented people. The Biden administration has ended that effort, he said, “so when they [the Census Bureau] deliver the numbers to the states, there won’t be any information about citizenship in there.”

Marion also spoke of the Census count itself, which was “dramatically delayed” by the pandemic. A process that was initially scheduled to finish on July 31, he said, continued into October, when the Trump administration won a legal battle ordering it to stop.

The “huge undertaking” that the Census represents, Marion said, includes the need for professionals at the Census Bureau to sort through the hundreds of millions of responses to “make sure that the data file has integrity.” That process was being rushed under the Trump administration, he said, but under the Biden administration, “they’re going to have time to clean it up.”

One concern for Rhode Island, Marion said, is that the Census figures “won’t pick up some of the changes that were accelerated by the pandemic.” On one hand, he said, the numbers – which are meant to provide a snapshot from April 1, 2020 – will not reflect people who have moved to the Ocean State from places like New York in the last several months. On the other, the area’s large off-campus college population risks being undercounted – particularly since questionnaires landed in mailboxes in March, just as the pandemic arrived and higher education institutions shut down or moved to remote learning.

While the state population counts are scheduled to arrive in the spring, Marion said the “redistricting file” – the granular data used to determine district and ward boundaries from the congressional level down to the local level – will not likely be completed until July. That will create significant issues for states like Virginia and New Jersey, which have elections this year, as well as those with earlier primaries in 2022.

“There are states that will be in a real pickle,” he said. “There’ll be a lot of litigation.”

In Cranston, planning for the redistricting process – which will involve drawing new maps of the city’s six wards – has already begun. An ordinance to create a redistricting committee was introduced during January’s City Council meeting, and it is set to go before the Ordinance Committee and full council for hearings this month. The committee could be comprised of the three members of the city’s Board of Canvassers.

The issue of “prison-based gerrymandering” has long been a source of debate in Cranston, which houses the Adult Correctional Institutions. For Census purposes, the inmates at the facility are included in population counts used to draw city ward maps and legislative district boundaries for the General Assembly.

Critics, including Marion, say the practice dilutes the power of voters in wards and districts that do not include the prison population. Marion said the issue is not unique to Cranston or Rhode Island, but the centralization of the state’s prison complex compared with other states makes it more pronounced locally.

The ACLU of Rhode Island unsuccessfully pursued legislation a few years ago seeking to end the practice, while the state Senate for several years has approved legislation that would reallocate inmates to their home communities in the prison count. From there, however, the bill ran into a repeated obstacle – opposition from Nicholas Mattiello, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, whose District 15 includes the ACI.

The legislation has been introduced again in the current session, Marion said, and while its prospects remain unclear, it is possible the “prison-based gerrymandering” practice could be eliminated in time for the upcoming redistricting process.

“[Mattiello is] no longer in power, so it remains to be seen whether his successor will let it have a vote,” he said.

Marion also noted that Cranston voters, by a wide margin, adopted a charter amendment in November that adds new language aimed at curbing gerrymandering in the drawing of ward maps. Providence, he said, has adopted similar language.

“Hopefully it will take some of the gamesmanship out of it,” he said, and “make the process a little blind to the partisanship.” He also hopes that citizens take a more active role in the redistricting process – even to the point of submitting their own maps for consideration, thanks to advancements in technology.

“We’re hoping that people get involved in the redistricting process … It should be in the voters’ hands, not the politicians’ hands,” he said.

Back on the federal level, Rhode Island will soon have a very prominent connection to the Census Bureau. Marion said it is the second-largest agency under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Commerce – the same department Gov. Gina Raimondo has been chosen to lead under the Biden administration. Her confirmation by the U.S. Senate is expected within days.

While Raimondo will oversee the completion of the 2020 Census in her new role, it is the next population count in 2030 over which she will have the most influence.

“During her tenure as commerce secretary, they’ll be making big decisions about how operationally the 2030 Census will be conducted,” Marion said – reviewing the move to online responses in 2020, for example, and deciding whether to continue with that approach.

Marion said Raimondo’s role in the creation and oversight of the Complete Count effort positions her well to understand the “impact” of the Census. He also said she will have an opportunity to rebuild morale and trust at the Census Bureau, where professional demographers have of late been “ordered to do things for political reasons, not for scientific reasons.

“The Census Bureau needs some help right now. The last four years have been extremely difficult … If she’s able to restore trust in that, hopefully that’ll bring the Census back a little bit in terms of credibility,” he said.

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