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Can Redistricting Reform Come to Rhode Island?

The controversy over Congressional redistricting has been particularly sharp this year. But Rhode Island's redistricting process - particularly when it comes to General Assembly seats - is always divisive.

Hence, calls in some quarters for a depoliticized redistricting process. But moving in that direction could be difficult in Rhode Island. I'll explain below. First, a look at what's happening elsewhere.

The state getting the most attention is California, which put a 14-member independent, citizen-run committee in charge of redistricting this year. But there are others. Arizona, for instance, has a five-member commission with two Democrats, two Republicans, and an independent who serves as chairman.

The results, thus far, have been good. One way to tell: angry politicians.

When the Arizona commission's partisan members deadlocked, the independent chair broke the tie in favor of the Democrats' plan. Republican Governor Jan Brewer promptly impeached the chair, only to have the move reversed by the state Supreme Court.

The guv didn't have a particularly legit beef. The panel, charged with improving political competition, produced two districts considered safe for Republicans, two safe for Democrats, and three up for grabs. Sure, that's a downgrade for Republicans, who hold a 5-3 edge in the Congressional delegation at the moment. But it's probably good for democracy.

So, can Rhode Island move in this direction? It'll be tough. California and Arizona both won their independent commissions via ballot initiative. In Rhode Island, the legislature has to approve any measure before it lands on the ballot. Wouldn't hold your breath on that one.

"Of all the reforms that we talk about, including some that really strike at the heart of power," says John Marion, executive director of good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, "nothing really strikes at the heart of power like redistricting reform."

But Marion sees a path to something California-like: a constitutional convention.

Every 10 years, a question about whether to hold a constitutional convention is automatically placed on the ballot. That question is slated to appear next in 2014. If voters approve a convention, Marion says Common Cause will be among the groups pushing for a California-like commission.

If the group succeeds, we could wind up with something very different than what we've seen this year. 

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