Fixing prison-based gerrymandering after the 2010 Census: Rhode Island

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:

  • A district drawn after the 2010 census in Cranston could draw 29% of its influence not from actual residents of Cranston but from people incarcerated in prisons. (Currently, all of the state’s prisons are clustered in Cranston, in one senate district and two house districts.)

Impact at the local level:

  • 25% of Cranston Ward 6, drawn after the 2000 census, was incarcerated and disenfranchised people from other parts of the state. This gave every 3 residents in that ward as much influence over city affairs as 4 residents in other parts of the city.

Rhode Island law says a prison cell is not a residence:

  • “A person's residence for voting purposes is his or her fixed and established domicile... A person can have only one domicile, and the domicile shall not be considered lost solely by reason of absence for any of the following reasons: … Confinement in a correctional facility....” (Rhode Island General Laws § 17-1-3.1.)

Pending legislation (as of March 2010):

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 Rhode Island should ask the Census Bureau for this change for 2020.

Additional resources:

  • Rhode Island resource page is an actively maintained list of links to fact sheets, news articles, endorsements and other resources on prison-based gerrymandering in Rhode Island.
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