Long overlooked in the context of redistricting, prisoners are counted by the U.S. Census Bureau as residents of the institutions they are incarcerated in. The goal of redistricting electoral boundaries at the state and local levels is to create equally populated districts that ensure every voter’s vote has equal weight in an election. A consensus has been building over the years that large prison populations counted by the Census Bureau in this way, confounds these goals.
While the Census Bureau has not changed its counting method for prisoners, in response to growing concern by states and advocacy groups, the Bureau has made available detailed census data on prisoners thathave allowed states for the first time to consider correcting for the problem of prisoners in redistricting. This article explains the issue and the solutions adopted by some states during this redistricting cycle. Every redistricting cycle brings something new and 2010 is no exception. One of the several new, exciting, and legally ambiguous items is the advent of prisoner gerrymandering and its cure; prison reallocation.
Prison gerrymandering is the term given to a common situation in the states; large concentrations of nonvoting inmates in state and local election districts, a condition that many believe distorts the voting and representation rights of many.
The Effects of Prison Gerrymandering
Consider the more extreme example of Anamosa, Iowa. The Prison Policy Initiative, a national advocacy group dedicated to eradicating prison gerrymandering, notes a city council district in Anamosa, which features a prison and just a handful of registered voters. Because the local council district had only a handful of voters – the rest of the population on record being the prison inmates, one local councilman won his seat with just two votes. The rest of the council members were required to compete for their seats in districts comprised of 1,400 voters on average. The end result of Anamosa’s predicament is that the weight of a voter’s vote in the district where the prison is located is 24 times as much as a typical voter in the remaining districts. The city has since changed its procedure to end this situation.
To some degree this distortion is present anywhere a state or local government counts inmates as part of the population in a district. The result is a trend among states where rural districts with prisons are to some degree over-represented in the legislature, especially when compared to urban regions. New York debated this very issue earlier in the year. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, 66% of New York’s prisoners came from New York City but 91% resided in prisons in upstate NY.
READ Report: Captive Constituents: Prison-Based Gerrymandering & the Distortion of Our Democracy. (NAACP Legal Defense Fund, May 20, 2010)
Reallocating Prisoners in Redistricting
The answer to the distortion caused by counting prison inmates as part of a district’s population during redistricting is to simply count them as if they were residents at their pre-incarceration address. This counting method would accomplish two things: First, it eliminates the large concentration of non-voting individuals within an election district, whether it be a congressional, state legislative or local council district. Second, it boosts the population of heavily urban areas, which in most cases contribute a significant amount to rural prison populations, bolstering the representation of those rural regions in the state legislature. Of course every states’ inmate population situation is different, but prisoner reallocation seems to be the effective answer for most.
Maryland in 2010, was the first state in the country to adopt a prisoner reallocation policy for redistricting statewide. A scattering of local jurisdictions around the country had been doing over the years, but these jurisdictions generally engaged in redistricting later into the decade. The information required from the U.S. Census Bureau to implement prisoner reallocation was never available in time for most statewide redistricting efforts, most of which happens within the 18months following receipt of official census numbers. In the spring of 2011, however the Bureau, responding to a growing number of requests for the early data on prisoners, released what is called its “Group Quarters” data. This detailed data file gives the population counts for prisons, nursing homes, and other group residences and is the basis for prisoner reallocation.
So far this cycle, three states in addition to Maryland have laws in place to implement prisoner reallocation for statewide redistricting; California, Delaware, and New York. Only Maryland and New York have completed the process successfully. California and Delaware will implement it during the 2020 cycle.