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Common Cause, local legislators weigh in on redistricting

Common Cause Connecticut hosted a media briefing Wednesday morning, in which members advocated for a transparent redistricting process.

Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization meant to be a government watchdog serving the public interest, led a discussion featuring Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut; Suzanne Almeida, redistricting and representation counsel for Common Cause, and Keshia Morris Desir, census and mass incarceration manager for Common Cause.

Connecticut’s current redistricting process is facing tight deadlines. A bipartisan committee of legislators had been tasked with redrawing congressional and General Assembly districts by Sept. 15. That did not happen, since the federal government was delayed in releasing updated census data. A new commission, composed of eight legislators who will choose a ninth member together, will look to make a new map by Nov. 30. If the commission can’t meet that deadline, the state Supreme Court steps in.

While the committee’s plan would be subject to General Assembly approval, the commission’s isn’t. The state Supreme Court can either compel the commission to complete its task or draw the district boundaries itself.

The formation of the commission has yet to be announced.

“To my knowledge it’s not yet happened, but it will no doubt include two leaders from each caucus in the House and Senate,” Quickmire said of forming the commission on Wednesday. “A couple people from the committee will no longer be part of the discussion.”

Quickmire said Common Cause had requests for when the commission is appointed, including an additional public hearing, as the committee held three public hearings that “were very poorly attended.” In general, Quickmire urged more public input, probably through an additional Zoom hearing, where the commission will talk about its criteria for redistricting.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said Thursday that she felt the redistricting process, which she’s been paying close attention to, has been fine thus far.

“I don’t know that the process could be changed any more other than to start in a timely fashion, but again, that was not because of Connecticut, that was because of the federal government,” she said.

Osten said her district used to encompass 106,000 people and now has about 98,000. She guessed at how the region may be affected by redistricting.

“Me, Heather (Somers), Paul (Formica), Norm (Needleman), we’re all similar in size right now, so I don’t foresee a whole lot of change,” she said. “If it happens at all, it may happen more on the state representative side.”

State Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, represents the 47th state House District, which more resembles a Senate district in its geographic size and diverse makeup, with the northern part of Norwich thrown in with all or parts of eight rural or former mill towns.

The district covers parts of Norwich, Lisbon and Lebanon and all of Scotland, Chaplin, Hampton, Canterbury, Sprague and Franklin.

Dubitsky’s district often comes up in conversation as one that’s likely to change with redistricting. He said Thursday that it must.

“It’s going to have to change because each of my towns lost population, so my district is going to have to get bigger in some way,” he said. “It will have to change in some way. It can’t stay the same because there’s not enough people living here at the moment.”

Dubitsky noted that eastern Connecticut generally lost population, “So it wouldn’t surprise me if we lost a seat somewhere. I don’t know if that’s more toward Stonington or Thompson.”

At Norwich City Hall earlier this month, one of the three public hearings Quickmire mentioned was held. Five people testified in front of about 30 attendees. At the time, Kimberly Blake, who spoke as part of the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut, argued redistricting “should be carried out by a committee of citizens who are not beholden to politicians in any way.” 

Common Cause has a similar stance.

Almeida said Common Cause has long supported an independent redistricting commission model where the people actually drawing district lines “are everyday people, not politicians, not lobbyists, people without conflicts of interest.” Still, Almeida and others were realistic in recognizing the current system. They said there were different ways to protect the integrity of the redistricting process, whether through the committee or commission utilizing nonpartisan staff, allowing an abundance of public input and making sure the lawmakers composing the committee or commission are mostly nonpartisan.

“But I would agree that we should seriously consider an independent redistricting commission and move toward that,” Quickmire added.

Osten doesn’t think it's a conflict of interest for legislators to be the ones who draw and redraw districts. “Anybody that’s going to be involved in drawing the maps is going to be involved in politics,” she said. “Those are the people with the intimate knowledge of the politics. I don’t think it’s problematic.”

Dubitsky mostly agreed with Osten. “I think the process seems reasonable to me," he said. "It’s the worst possible way to do things, except every other way.”

Morris Desir spoke about the legislature passing prison gerrymandering reform this past legislative session, joining 11 other states in ending the injustice of counting incarcerated people in the municipality where the prison is located "even though they can’t vote and aren’t connected to the area,” she said.

Under the new measure, inmates now will be counted as residents of their last town of residence. In the previous system, incarcerated people were counted as residents of the town where they were imprisoned, effectively boosting the population of these towns when the census is conducted. Since representation in the General Assembly is based on population, this gave towns that have prisons a higher population count than they might otherwise have and, potentially, larger amounts of state funding.

Opponents of this practice have referred to it as “prison gerrymandering” and claim that it unfairly advantages rural areas. These small towns generally have more prisons than urban areas, despite the fact that most of the incarcerated people are from cities. Prisons such as the ones in Montville and East Lyme can generate vital economic activity for these towns, but having issues within prisons can often bleed over into the surrounding community and tax local resources.

Morris Desir also noted Connecticut’s population shift according to new census data. The number of residents went up by about 32,000. Among the 47 states that gained population from 2010-20, Connecticut had the lowest growth.

“But where Connecticut did see growth ... is people of color have increased in the state,” she said, and argued for a more representative legislature to be reflected in any redistricting process. The white population in the state has dropped more than 11%. The Hispanic and Latino population grew from 13.4% to 17.3%, while the Black and Asian populations each grew by roughly 1%.

New London County is among the 52% of counties nationwide that saw a decrease in population from 2010 to 2020 and, like the rest of the United States, became more racially diverse, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The bureau in April released statewide data showing that Connecticut's population increased 0.9% over the decade to 3,605,944 residents, and later released more localized data that will be used for redistricting. The state isn't losing or gaining any congressional seats, but the new data will impact borders for congressional and state legislative districts. 

As lawmakers did in Norwich earlier this month, Quickmire encouraged private citizens to use websites including districtbuilder.org, districtr.org and davesredistricting.org that allow people to combine mapping tools with census data online to formulate new maps, and encouraged residents to submit their own maps for state review. Legislators are accepting such maps. She also suggested all maps being considered by legislators be made public.

s.spinella@theday.com

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