Fixing prison-based gerrymandering after the 2010 Census: Washington

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:

  • More research needs to be done, especially in the city of Airway Heights and in the counties of Walla Walla and Mason. (These communities contain large prisons relative to their actual population.) Unless the prison populations were removed from the redistricting base after the last Census, these communities may have one or more districts that are significantly padded with non-resident prison populations. See the Democracy Toolkit for a suggested research methodology.

Washington law says a prison cell is not a residence:

  • “For the purpose of voting and eligibility to office no person shall be deemed to have gained a residence by reason of his presence or lost it by reason of his absence… while confined in public prison.” (Washington Constitution, Article VI, §4.)


  • 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 Washington 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 Washington 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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