Fixing prison-based gerrymandering after the 2010 Census: New Jersey

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:

  • The state’s prison population comes disproportionately from some counties:
    • Essex County (Newark) is home for less than 9% of the state, but 16% of its incarcerated people.
    • Camden County is home for 6% of the state, but 12% of its incarcerated people.
  • Crediting the state’s incarcerated population to the census blocks that contain the state’s 13 correctional facilities serves to enhance the weight of a vote cast in those 13 districts while diluting those cast in every other district.

Impact at the local level:

  • New Jersey law requires school board districts to exclude the prison population when apportioning school boards that have 9 or more members. (N.J. Stat. Ann. § 18A:13-8; Board v. New Jersey, 372 N.J. Super. 341, 858 A.2d 576 (2004)) In this way, the school boards avoid prison-based gerrymandering and refuse to give some voters extra influence just because they live next to a prison. However, any school boards that have districts based on population and that have 8 or fewer members may have significant vote dilution problems caused by prison-based gerrymandering.
  • Unless corrective action is taken, prison-based gerrymandering could result in city council wards in Trenton and Newark being about 8 and 10% incarcerated, respectively. In each of these wards, a smaller number of residents will be given the same influence over city affairs as larger groups in other wards that do not contain correctional facilities.

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 New Jersey should ask the Census Bureau for this change for 2020.

Additional resources:

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