Factsheet and recommendations

Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Nevada

a report by The Prison Policy Initiative and the
Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada

The Census counts prisoners - barred by law from voting in 48 states - where they are incarcerated, swelling the population of rural prison areas. When the state legislature uses the "phantom" population of rural prisoners to draw new district lines, democracy comes up missing.

To ensure that every person's vote counts equally, legislative districts in the United States are redrawn every 10 years after the Census so each district contains the same number of people. Only slight deviations from exact population equality are allowed, and only to protect common "communities of interest." But the situation in many prison communities more closely resembles "communities of opposing interests": the interests of urban people involuntarily present in rural prisons are most often very different from people living on the other side of those prison walls.

Allowing rural communities to take in urban prisoners only for purposes of the Census increases the value of rural votes and turns the whole idea of One-Person-One-Vote on its head.

Many effects:

  • Rural prison-hosting counties get an extra population on paper to cover up their otherwise declining population.
  • Urban prisoner-exporting districts lose population.
  • Rural legislators can devote more attention to their "real constituents."
  • Urban legislators must serve both constituents living in their districts and their family members incarcerated far away.
  • Rural voters gain legislators and urban voters lose them.
  • State policy priorities are skewed toward the interests of rural residents in prison hosting areas and against the interests of urban residents.

In Nevada:

  • The Nevada Constitution says that a prison is not a residence.
  • It defines residence as the place that you willingly choose to be and explicitly states that a prison can not be a residence.
  • Nevada now incarcerates more than 5 times as many people as it did in 1980.
  • The incarcerated population in Nevada is now so large that it is no longer possible to ignore the fact that the Nevada Constitution requires data different from that provided by the Census Bureau.
  • 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.
  • Including non-resident prisoners as population for purposes of redistricting creates prison districts with substantially fewer constituents than elsewhere. The real residents of the prison district have more access to their legislator than other state residents. This is unfair.
  • A Nevada Assembly district is supposed to contain 47,578 people.
  • In Assembly District 35, (Pete Goicoechea) 5.5% of the population is prisoners.
  • The correctional facilities in District 35 contain 2,621 people, mostly from other parts of the state.
  • Every group of 95 residents in District 35 gets as much of a say over state affairs as 100 people in Las Vegas or Reno.
  • A State Senate district is supposed to contain 95,155 people.
  • Many of the districts in Clark County contain almost 5% too many people.
  • Many of the rural districts contain almost 5% too few people, for a combined maximum deviation of 9.91%.
  • The Supreme Court's maximum allowable deviation in district sizes of 10%.
  • Three 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 even smaller than the Senate imagined when it drafted the districts.
  • Blacks are almost 7% of Nevada's population, yet more than 27% the incarcerated people in the state are Black.
  • Blacks in Nevada are incarcerated at a rate more than 4 times higher than the White residents of the state.


  • To draw districts that comply with the Nevada state constitution's definition of residence and would allow all residents to be represented equally in the legislature, Nevada needs data that counts its growing prison population in the right place.
  • If Nevada wants the Census Bureau's data to be compatible with how its Constitution defines residence for prisoners, it needs to make that fact known to the Census Bureau before the 2010 Census.
  • 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.

--Peter Wagner, Prison Policy Initiative, 2004, http://www.prisonpolicy.org
--Paul Brown, PLAN, 2004, http://www.planevada.org

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