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SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A commission that’s looking at redrawing the boundaries for Rhode Island’s legislative and congressional districts came to South Kingstown on Thursday to explain the process and seek input from local residents.

Kimball Brace, consultant for the Special Legislative Commission on Reapportionment, said population shifts within the state will have effects on Washington County.  

The commission is chaired by Rep. Robert D. Phillips (D-Dist. 51, Woonsocket, Cumberland) and Sen. Stephen R. Archambault (D-Dist. 22, Smithfield, North Providence, Johnston). State Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski, (D-Dist. 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham) is a member.

It’s holding a series of statewide meetings on redistricting this fall.

Brace said the commission wanted to come to South County to find the reason for large population shifts here, particularly in Narragansett.

In observing changes in populations between censuses, Brace noted that there was a large movement of people from the northern part of the state to South County in 2010.

“The census data this time (2020) has totally flipped that parameter,” Brace said. Population is moving back up to the northern part of the state, he added.

As to why, the commission doesn’t always get the answers. But members want to know why, for instance, Narragansett lost 8.4% of its population from 10 years ago.

“That’s the biggest shift we’ve seen. Thirteen hundred less people in Narragansett,” Brace said. “That’s a good chunk of change.” Warwick and East Providence also saw similar losses.

Big losses happened in the northern and southern parts of town.

Summer home purchases in town are a likely contributing factor, according to Brace.

“What that means in terms of representation – that could have an impact. If the people are not here are they voting here or not,” Brace said.

Narragansett resident and Town Council member Deborah Kopech said the town hosts the largest number of off-campus college students in the state.

“Last year with COVID, a lot of students left to their home states or towns,” she said. “Generally speaking, during census a number of students are counted in our town, so they were missing.”

Kopech also agreed Narragansett has a significant number of rental properties.

“Both of those things matter,” she said.  

Reapportionment happens once every 10 years. The state constitution calls for the General Assembly to reapportion its districts as well as the two congressional districts after each 10-year federal census.

Brace said that Rhode Island has about 550,000 people in each of its two congressional districts.

“For U.S. congressional districts, things need to get very, very equal,” he said. “Courts have told us we have to be very, very equal in the district populations.”

There’s some more latitude in establishing the state legislative districts, however.

“State Senate, were shooting for 28,878 people (per district), but we have a larger range we can use,” Brace said. The deviation can vary by 10 percent in total.

In the House of Representatives, which has more districts, the numbers are smaller, at about 14,000 people per district, with a five percent margin of deviation.

“We need to work with the public as well as legislative members to achieve that kind of balance. That’s what the courts have said,” Brace said.

One of the chief components of the new redistricting process is the establishment of “communities of interest,” which refers to areas or communities defined by the people that inhabit them.

“Communities of interest could be just and ethnic group, for example, it could be a racial group, it could be a neighborhood, it could be a parish they attend,” Brace said. “For our purposes, it needs to have a geographic component.”

Anyone interested in defining their own community of interest is able to go to a website – www.riredistricting.org/ – that contains a vast array of information and data related to the reapportionment process.

“That will be useful for us to help in drawing where these district boundaries are in he state,” Brace said. “Give us an indication of where your community of interest is and put it on the map.”

According to Phillips and Archambault, a second round of meetings will be scheduled to ensure further input from the communities.

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