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Fixing prison-based gerrymandering after the 2010 Census: Wisconsin

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:

  • Milwaukee County contains 18% of the state population but is 42% of its prisoners come from the county. Virtually all of the state’s prison cells are located outside of the county.
  • State legislative district 53, drawn after the 2000 Census, contained 5,131 prisoners from other parts of the state. This artificially decreased the population of the district by almost 10%. In effect, each group of 9 residents in District 53 had as much political power as 10 residents elsewhere in the state.
  • Wisconsin has historically drawn legislative districts so that their population-sizes are within 2% of the average. But by counting incarcerated individuals as part of the districts in which they are incarcerated, Wisconsin awards greater political representation to districts with prisons than to those without them.

Impact at the local level:

  • Because the Census numbers used to draw county districts after the 2000 Census included non-resident prison populations, every resident in districts 8, 29 and 31 of Dodge County has twice the influence of residents of county districts without prisons.
  • The full list of cities and counties where prisons were used to distort the weight of a vote cast for local government after the 2000 Census:
    Wisconsin cities and counties where relying on the Census for redistricting creates serious problems for democracy after the 2000 Census. (We also looked at Oshkosh City in Winnebago Co., Fond du Lac City in Fond Du Lac Co., Allouez Village in Brown Co., and Sturtevant Village in Racine Co., but these cities and villages are not affected because their local government is elected at large rather than from districts. Marquette County’s districts were not affected by the prisoner miscount because the county and state concluded that the census erred in placing the Federal Oxford prison in Marquette, when it is actually located in Adams County.) This table is updated from Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Wisconsin with the downsized districts in Fond du Lac County.
    County District Percent of district’s population that is in prison Resulting Vote Distortion
    Adams 5 & 6 64% 9 votes here = 25 elsewhere
    Brown 14 22% 39 votes here = 50 elsewhere
    Columbia 8 47% 27 votes here = 50 elsewhere
    Dane 33 6% 47 votes here = 50 elsewhere
    Dodge 29 53% 47 votes here = 100 elsewhere
    Dodge 31 59% 41 votes here = 100 elsewhere
    Dodge 35 10% 9 votes here = 10 elsewhere
    Dodge 8 54% 23 votes here = 50 elsewhere
    Fond du Lac 18 18% 82 votes here = 100 elsewhere
    Jackson 10, 11, 12 and 19 24% 19 votes here = 25 elsewhere
    Racine 13 17% 83 votes here = 100 elsewhere
    Sheboygan 22 6% 47 votes here = 50 elsewhere
    Sheboygan 32 25% 3 votes here = 4 elsewhere
    Winnebago 12 42% 58 votes here = 100 elsewhere
    Winnebago 30 16% 21 votes here = 25 elsewhere
    City District
    Fitchburg City 4 14% 43 votes here = 50 elsewhere
    Franklin City 1 38% 31 votes here = 50 elsewhere
    Waupun City 2 63% 37 votes here = 100 elsewhere
    Waupun City 3 79% 21 votes here = 100 elsewhere
  • In addition, the construction of new prisons in Chippewa, Juneau, and Waushara counties over the last decade will, unless corrective action is taken, result in drawing districts where a handful of residents near a prison will be given 3 or more times as much political influence as residents in other parts of the counties.

Wisconsin law says a prison cell is not a residence:

  • Chapter 6.10 of Wisconsin’s election laws provides that a person’s residence is determined by "where the person’s habitation is fixed, without any present intent to move, and to which, when absent, the person intends to return." Since most incarcerated people intend to leave prison and do not intend to return, prison is not their residence.

Pending legislation (as of March 2010):

  • In 2009, State Representatives Frederick Kessler, Spencer Black, Tamara Grigsby, Robert Turner and Annette Polly Williams, as well as State Senator Lena Taylor, introduced Assembly Joint Resolution 63 to amend the Wisconsin Constitution to require the state and local governments to draw legislature districts on the basis of Census Bureau data adjusted to exclude the prison populations. The Prison Policy Initiative has produced a factsheet [PDF] about this amendment.

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 Wisconsin should ask the Census Bureau for this change for 2020.

Additional resources:

  • Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Wisconsin, is a district-by-district analysis of prison-based gerrymandering in Wisconsin state legislative and county districts.
  • Wisconsin resource page is an actively maintained list of links to facts sheet, news articles, endorsements and other resources on prison-based gerrymandering in Wisconsin.
  • Milwaukee Magazine cover Fuzzy Math: Is the Census Bureau creating unfair politics in Wisconsin?, by Evan Solochek, Milwaukee Magazine March 2008
  • A list of new large prisons built in Wisconsin since the 2000 Census. These prisons are likely to create new prison-based gerrymandering problems after their populations are counted in the 2010 Census.