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Executive summary

The Census Bureau counts people incarcerated in state and federal correctional facilities as if they were residents of the prison town. Although incarcerated people are not a part of the prison town, they become a part of the community's statistics used by state legislatures during the redistricting process after each Census.

When the Census began in 1790, the Census' sole constitutional mandate was to count the number of people in each state to determine their relative populations for purposes of Congressional reapportionment. Where people were counted within a state simply didn't matter.

Today, the Supreme Court requires states to redraw their legislative districts each decade so that each district contains the same number of people. This ensures that each resident has the same access to government and is known as the One Person One Vote rule.

But if the Census data doesn't reflect where the Nevada state constitution says prisoners reside -- at home -- and if prisoners are concentrated in prisons far from their home communities, serious dilutions in voting strength can result.

Findings

The Nevada Assembly used Census figures to draw districts that are very close containing the correct population. But one district, Assembly District 35 (Pete Goicoechea, R) is 5.5% prisoners. According to the Census numbers used by the Assembly to draw its legislative districts, District is slightly over-populated with 328 too many people. But the Census figures aren't a reflection of where Nevadans reside. The correctional facilities in District 35 contain 2,621 people, mostly from other parts of the state.

The Nevada Senate's districts didn't start out very equal. By Census numbers, many of the Las Vegas area districts have too many people in them and many of the rural districts have too few. This could be considered a dilution of the voting strength of urban Nevadans, although it is within the limits established by the Supreme Court for population deviation. Unfortunately, 3 of the most under-populated Senate districts in Nevada (Capital, Central and Northern) are also the districts that contain the largest prison populations. The true populations of these districts are therefore even smaller than the Senate imagined when it drafted the districts. If all of the prisoners were from outside the districts, the actual population of these districts would be more than 6.9% to 8.3% too small, more than the Supreme Court has allowed for population deviation.

Recommendations

In order to draw districts that comply with the Nevada state constitution's definition of residence and allow all residents to be represented equally in the legislature, Nevada needs data that counts its growing prison population in the right place.

In order to better serve its data users in state government, the Census Bureau should update its centuries-old method of counting prisoners and count them not at the prison but as residents of their homes.

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