Rhode Island lawmakers are moving ahead with the redrawing of legislative districts - a process that happens every 10 years. A General Assembly commission on Wednesday approved the latest plan.

The new maps created by consultant Kimball Brace and backed by the state’s Special Commission on Reapportionment will shape the battlefield for legislative races taking place later this year. Legislative districts are redrawn each decade after the completion of the latest U.S. Census.

Head of the nonpartisan good government group Common Cause of Rhode Island John Marion closely monitors the redistricting process. He said not much has changed over time in how state lawmakers revise district maps.

“The maps as a whole across the state, they’re really drawn in a way that both protects incumbents and because the Democratic Party controls the overwhelming number of seats, is drawn with sort of a partisan bias toward the Democrats.,” Marion said.

Sen. Stephen Archambault (D-Smithfield) is a co-chair of the Special Commission on Reapportionment.

He declined to respond directly to Marion's view that the process is too politicized -- "I’m not going to entertain John’s argument at all,” Archambault said -- or to critiques of changes made to particular districts.

Archambault added, “I think we’ve been thoroughly open with everybody, We’ve been to countless venues around the state. We’ve brought the process to the people, in their own towns and municipalities to seek input on increasing minority voting strength and making sure that we took into consideration every viewpoint that we possibly could.”

House Speaker Joe Shekarchi defended the process, saying in a statement, “I have confidence that the diverse, independent and bipartisan commission members will make the appropriate recommendations to the General Assembly. The commission, comprised of legislators and members of the public, have conducted 16 public hearings throughout the state and I have deliberately taken a hands-off approach to the commission’s work.”

The Special Commission on Reapportionment is making one change this year in response to public input. That involves listing inmates serving two years or less at the state prison at the time of the Census in their home city or town, rather than at the Adult Correctional Institutions. John Marion called this a partial victory, although he said it’s less than what other states have done and will affect only about 40 percent of ACI inmates.

Another target for critics is how state lawmakers are the ones controlling the redrawing of districts for their own institution.

The General Assembly is overwhelmingly Democratic. Republicans hold just 10 of the 75 seats in the House of Representatives and five of 38 in the state Senate.

The GOP has struggled for years to increase its legislative representation, for reasons that extend beyond redistricting. A bigger worry for some Democrats these days is the growing number of challenges from progressive Democrats.

Lenny Cioe is one of those progressives. He’s part of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative and made a surprisingly strong showing in 2020. Cioe got 45 percent of the primary vote for the legislative seat held by the powerful president of the state Senate, Dominick Ruggerio of North Providence.

Cioe is pursuing a rematch this year. And he said redistricting has removed from Ruggerio’s district the precincts where he got the most support in 2020. Cioe said he was unsatisfied by the response when he raised concern about this with the redistricting commission.

"They were claiming that it was all done fairly," he said. "When I asked questions concerning this -- that they were disenfranchising voters in that district, they just claimed that it was the population change.”

Senator Archambault said legislators are fulfilling their legally prescribed obligation by overseeing the redistricting process. But good government groups and some lawmakers say putting an independent panel in charge would be better. The General Assembly has shown little interest in pursuing that concept.

But there’s little recourse for outsiders beyond the court of public opinion since, Marion said, the U.S. Supreme Court has given legislatures free rein to take part in partisan gerrymandering.

The legislature hired Brace as its redistricting consultant after a botched process led to a costly special election in 1983 and a big albeit short-lived bump in GOP lawmakers, particularly in the state Senate.

The full House and Senate are expected to sign off on the latest redistricting plan later this year.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. Follow him on Twitter @IanDon. Sign up here for his weekly RI politics and media newsletter.