Fixing prison-based gerrymandering after the 2010 Census: North Carolina

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 local level:

  • 30% of Anson County's District 6, drawn after the 2000 Census was incarcerated at the Anson and Brown Creek Facilities, giving every 7 residents of this district as much influence as 10 residents in the other districts. Unless corrective action is taken, the problem may be twice as large after the 2010 Census. The Anson facility has merged with the Brown Creek Facility, but the new Lanesboro Correctional Institution will double the incarcerated population in this part of the county. If the districts are similarly drawn with uncorrected Census data, the majority of one district could be incarcerated, giving those prison's neighbors twice as much influence in county affairs as any other county resident.
  • Columbus County avoided prison-based gerrymandering during its most recent county redistricting before the 2010 Census.
  • More research needs to be done, especially in the counties of Hyde, Granville, Avery, Caswell, Pamlico, Montgomery, and Pasquotank. (These counties contain large prisons relative to their actual population.) Some North Carolina counties (like Tyrrell and Greene) do not have districts and are unaffected. The districting practices of the other counties listed are unknown. If these counties have districts and not removed the prison populations from the redistricting base after the Census, these counites will one or more districts that are significantly padded with non-resident prison populations. See the Democracy Toolkit for a suggested research methodology.
  • New prisons built over the last decade in Bertie and Hertford counties will result in a significant portion of the population counted in the 2010 Census being incarcerated people, not local residents. If these counties draw districts based on the prison populations, the counties will be giving more political power to the people who live near the prisons than to residents in other parts of the counties.

North Carolina law says a prison cell is not a residence:

  • A prison cell is not a residence in North Carolina because a residence must be the place that you intend to settle permanently, and when absent, that you intend to return to. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163-57

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 North Carolina 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:

  • A list of new large prisons built in North Carolina since the 2000 Census. These prisons are likely to create new prison-based gerrymandering problems after their populations are counted in the 2010 census.
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