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Common Cause of Rhode Island, a leading watchdog organization, is determined to assure that every Rhode Islander is counted in the upcoming census, hopeful the state can retain two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“We’re on the cusp of losing a Congressional seat for the first time since 1789,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. If it does, Rhode Island will join a handful of states with only one representative in the House of Representatives. It’s not that Rhode Island is losing population, Marion said, it’s that other states are gaining population.
Once the census is finished, Marion said Common Cause will focus on how Rhode Island determines its U.S. Representative and state Legislative districts. Currently it is the state legislature that oversees redistricting. Common Cause wants a Constitutional Amendment that would make Rhode Island only the fifth state whose districts are drawn by an independent commission.
At stake in the census, Marion said, is the “number of seats we have in the House of Representatives and how many electoral college votes the state gets.” Additionally, he said certain federal funds are tied to the number of Representatives. Marion said that up to 40 percent of Rhode Island’s $10 billion budget, comes from federal programs. He did not indicate how much of that might be lost if Rhode Island loses a Congressional seat.
Marion said 25 percent of the state is deemed hard to count. Hopeful of encouraging participation, Common Cause is working with a group called the Rhode Island Complete Count Committee. A federal census is conducted every 10 years, and this year’s begins in April.
An offshoot of the census is redistricting for federal and state legislative lines. Only four states – Washington, Idaho, California and Arizona – have ceded that responsibility to independent bodies. Some other states have either commissions that are political, some have advisory groups that have little authority (Rhode Island among them), and the vast majority leave redistricting to state legislators.
“Right now, it’s politicians picking their voters,” Marion said. Where independent commissions have been developed, Marion said, it’s happened through ballot referendum. Nationally, we’re seeing a lot of people becoming aware of the problem gerrymandering has on Democracy.”
Common Cause is a significant watchdog group in Rhode Island. Its mission “is to promote representative democracy by ensuring open, ethical, accountable, effective government processes at local, state and national levels by educating and mobilizing the citizens of Rhode Island.”