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Fixing prison-based gerrymandering after the 2010 Census: Arizona

50 State Guide, March 2010

Prison-based gerrymandering violates the constitutional principle of "One Person, One Vote." The Supreme Court requires districts to be based on equal population in order to give each resident the same access to government. But a longstanding flaw in the Census counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison location, even though they can’t vote and aren’t a part of the surrounding community.

When legislators claim people incarcerated in their districts are legitimate constituents, they award people who live close to the prison more of a say in government than everybody else.

Impact at the state level:

  • Maricopa County contains 59% of Arizona’s population, but 64% of the state’s prisoners come from the county. The political effect of this disproportionate incarceration rate is magnified by the fact that few prisoners are incarcerated in Maricopa — the county contains only 19% of the Arizona’s state prison cells.
  • Crediting many of Arizona’s incarcerated people to a few locations, far away from home, enhances the political clout of the people who live near prisons, while diluting the voting power of all other Arizonans.

Impact at the local level:

  • After the 2000 Census:
    • The town of Buckeye excluded the prison population when drawing electoral districts, otherwise the prison would have been a district all by itself with no voters.
    • Pinal County rejected the Census Bureau's prison count when drawing county board of supervisors districts. Otherwise the people who live near the prisons would have had more political influence than residents of other county districts.
    • Substantial prison-based gerrymandering problems existed in Graham County. In Graham County, District 1 was 6% incarcerated (Fort Grant Unit of Arizona State Prison Complex- Safford). District 2 was 18.5% incarcerated (FCI Safford & Arizona State Prison Complex- Safford), giving some residents more influence than others.

Arizona law says a prison cell is not a residence:

  • “For the purpose of voting, no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence by reason of being present or absent… while confined in any public jail or prison.” (Arizona Constitution, Article VII, § 3.)

Other solutions:

  • Ideally, the U.S. Census Bureau would change where it counts incarcerated people. They should be counted as residents of their home — not prison — addresses. There is no time for that in 2010, but Arizona should ask the Census Bureau for this change for 2020.
  • After the 2010 Census, the state and its local governments should, to the degree possible, count incarcerated people as residents of their home communities for redistricting purposes. Where that is not feasible, incarcerated people should be treated as providing unknown addresses instead of being used to pad the legislative districts that contain prisons.

Additional resources:

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