by Aleks Kajstura, August 19, 2015

Prison population affecting Florida’s redistricting fight in yesterday’s Miami Herald explains how the current way the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people is making it difficult for the legislature to draw functional minority opportunity districts:

The last Census counted more than 160,000 people in Florida correctional facilities, and they cannot vote. But they can skew how districts are drawn, and ultimately who represents the state in the U.S. House of Representatives. That is exactly what U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, is convinced is happening in North Florida.

Brown said the proposed new Congressional District 5 stretching from Jacksonville to Tallahassee will see a reduction in the percentage of black residents who are of voting age — a key measure used to ensure black voters can elect who they want to represent them in Congress — from 50 percent to 45 percent under the map that passed the House on Tuesday and is expected to be before the Senate on Wednesday.

But Brown, who is suing the Legislature to block the redrawing of her district, said the reduction of the black voting age population in her district could be even greater because her new district would have 17,000 prisoners in it — giving it one of the highest prison populations in the state. Her current district has just 10,000.

Florida is redistricting again because the Florida Supreme Court recently invalidated the current map and legislators are having a hard time disentangling Census’s detailed data on voting age and race from the Bureau’s counts of incarcerated populations. And, as the article reports, some of the attempts to increase the Black Voting Age population inadvertently relied on adding even more prisons to the proposed district:

State Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, proposed a plan that would increase the black voting age population in Brown’s district to 46.6 percent. Gibson cited concerns over the prisons as one of her points of contention, yet her proposal, which is scheduled to be considered by the Senate on Wednesday, would boost the number of people incarcerated in Brown’s district to nearly 23,000.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat, took his own shot at redrawing the district, too. But while his plan increased the black voting age population, it would have required putting almost 30,000 inmates into Brown’s district.

To make these kinds of calculations easier for map drafters, we combine the Bureau’s data on incarcerated people into accessible formats and make those available through our data page. And of course, if the Census Bureau changes their methodology to count incarcerated people where they reside in 2020, these sorts of problems will be avoided.


by Aleks Kajstura, May 12, 2015

Minnesota’s election omnibus reform bill, SF 455, passed the senate yesterday. The bill includes ending prison gerrymandering among other reforms. For more information on the prison gerrymandering provisions (Article 6) of the bill check out my written testimony. The bill now awaits action in the House, stay tuned.


by Leah Sakala, May 1, 2015

In discussions about prison gerrymandering, we’re often asked: “Does the Census Bureau’s prison count impact state and local funding allocations?”

Although it might seem counterintuitive, the answer is, “Generally, not at all. Prison gerrymandering hurts democracy and vote equality, not money flows.”

Eric Lotke, President of the Prison Policy Initiative Board, spent a year-long fellowship looking at this question. He describes his findings in our newest video:


by Aleks Kajstura, April 7, 2015

Rhode Island’s House Judiciary Committee recently held a hearing on H 5155, a bill to end prison gerrymandering. (The Senate just passed their version of the bill last month.)

I wanted to share testimony given by Steve Brown of the Rhode Island ACLU and John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island. Brown jumps right in to the specifics, discussing with Representative Edith Ajello how prison gerrymandering is inconsistent with state election law:

And this isn’t some quirk of Rhode Island law, in fact most states have similar laws; explicitly stating that an incarcerated person’s home continues to be their legal residence regardless of where they are confined.

And further expounding the illogic of prison gerrymandering in complementary testimony, Marion provides great context for how prison gerrymandering fits into the larger picture of the evolution of proportional representation and redistricting.

For details on Rhode Island’s prison gerrymandering problem check out PPI’s written testimony.

And a special thanks to Grace Mendenhall in our Young Professionals Network for her help with formatting the videos.


by Aleks Kajstura, March 24, 2015

This afternoon in Oregon, the state’s Senate Committee on Rules will hold a work session that will include a discussion of SB 331, a bill to end prison gerrymandering.

The committee has already received testimony supporting the bill from numerous organizations when it held a public hearing earlier this month.

Several people also testified in person, including two of the bill’s sponsors, with Senator Shields pointing out that “since we’ve a little bit of distance between redistricting this might be the exact opportune time to take this on”. I hope the committee agrees.

Senator Shields and Representative Bentz testifying before Oregon's Senate Committee on RulesSenator Shields and Representative Bentz testify in support of SB 331 before Oregon’s Senate Committee on Rules, March 10, 2015


by Aleks Kajstura, March 17, 2015

I’m happy to report that McAlester, Oklahoma has finally solved the prison gerrymandering problem it stumbled into last decade. It may have taken the City a while, but it’s certainly not for their lack of trying.

The City used to exclude prison populations when redistricting, but a mid-decade charter revision accidentally tied their hands when the 2010 round of redistricting rolled around. The new charter language — based on the model charter published by the National Civic League — pegged McAlester’s redistricting data to population data “according to the most recent Census”, which of course tabulated people incarcerated at the two state correctional facilities in town as if they were actual residents of McAlester. This resulted in the city feeling forced into drawing a district where people incarcerated by the state accounted for nearly 60% of the population. This means that McAlester residents who live in that city council district get more than twice as much representation on the city council as any other city resident.

Last summer McAlester was poised to fix the charter, and those who voted overwhelmingly approved the charter change in August, but that too didn’t last. A legal fault was discovered with the published election notice, and a new vote was needed.

And so we arrive at March of 2015, when the residents of McAlester
voted once again to finally end prison gerrymandering. And that’s great news, for McAlester. But there are many cities that lack McAlester’s persistent pursuit of equal representation. And quite frankly, America’s cities should not be put in a position where they have to question Census data’s suitability for redistricting.

The Census Bureau should count incarcerated people at home, rather than as residents of the location of the prison. This national solution would not only end prison gerrymandering for the rest of the cities still struggling with prison gerrymandering but also help the cities (and states) who already take the time and effort to adjust the Census Bureau’s redistricting data on their own. And as an interim measure, the The National Civic League should amend its model city charter to encourage cities to avoid prison gerrymandering by making their own data adjustments.


by Bernadette Rabuy, March 11, 2015

On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida filed a federal lawsuit challenging an election system in Jefferson County, Florida, which counts the state prison population in the drawing of district maps. The complaint argues that the 2013 Redistricting Plan violates the “one person, one vote” standard of the 14th Amendment.

For more information, read the ACLU’s press release. And check out the Florida page of our 2010 report to learn more about the negative impact of prison gerrymandering in Florida, on both the local and state levels.


by Aleks Kajstura, March 5, 2015

Last night, the Rhode Island Senate passed a bill (S0239) to end prison gerrymandering. As it did last year, the bill passed unanimously (33-0) with bipartisan support.

The bill is similar to those already passed in California, Delaware, New York, and Maryland; the Rhode Island bill proposes to adjust population data published by the Census Bureau in order to count incarcerated people at their home address for Rhode Island’s state and local redistricting. Until the Census Bureau makes the change (as local, state, and Congressional legislators, and over 200 organizations have explicitly urged it to do), it’s up to each state to correct the redistricting data themselves.

We expect the House version of the bill (H 5155) to be considered in the House Judiciary committee by the end of March. Stay tuned for the exact date.


by Aleks Kajstura, February 26, 2015

Yesterday, jointly with the Justice Policy Institute, we released a new report that for the first time mapped where people incarcerated in Maryland state prisons come from and how much Maryland taxpayers spend on their incarceration. The report includes detailed maps and information that can better inform investment decisions in these communities to help solve long-standing challenges and improve public safety.

The research was possible because of the data that was generated when Maryland implemented their No Representation Without Population law, ending prison gerrymandering. In order to count incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes, the state needed to find out where incarcerated people live. Incarcerated people already had their addresses on file at the Department of Corrections, and the Maryland Planning Department mapped them all out in preparation for redistricting, then adjusted the population data the state received from the Census Bureau accordingly. By comparing the State’s list of populations and the Census Bureau’s reports we were able to show where the state focused its spending on incarceration.

As Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel-21), one of the law’s lead sponsors, put it:

“I introduced the No Representation Without Population Act to provide better data for redistricting purposes, and I’m now looking forward to using all the data and information generated by this law to directly enlighten future criminal justice policy choices in Maryland.”

Additional data and links are available on our home communities page.


by Bernadette Rabuy, January 27, 2015

In this decade, we have seen increasingly more municipalities and counties take the necessary steps to actively avoid prison gerrymandering. While most places avoid prison gerrymandering by adjusting Census Bureau data to draw districts that exclude prison populations, some small cities with large prisons have avoided prison gerrymandering by changing their form of government. For example, the cities of Berlin in New Hampshire and Anamosa and Clarinda in Iowa have moved from electing their representatives from wards (the name for their local government districts) to an at-large election system. By doing so, they addressed two pressing problems at once: unequal representation caused by prison gerrymandering and a lack of candidates for city council positions.

Previously, Anamosa and Clarinda were some of the most dramatic examples of prison gerrymandering in the country. The situation in Anamosa was so acute that the city got national attention in 2008 when there were no candidates for city council, resulting in a city resident being elected to the Anamosa City Council with just two write-in votes (neither of them his). Unfortunately for Anamosa, the state of Iowa is one of a handful of states in which state law requires the use of federal Census data for city redistricting even though the Census Bureau tabulates incarcerated people in a way that is incompatible with other parts of state law. The Census Bureau tabulates incarcerated people as if they were residents of the location of the correctional facility, but that’s at odds with Iowa law that states that a residence is “a fixed or permanent abode or habitation to which the party, when absent, intends to return.” A prison does not fit this definition because incarcerated people do not intend to live at the prison and certainly do not intend to return there “when absent.” The Anamosa City Council felt that the only way to avoid prison gerrymandering was to get rid of its wards.

A few years ago, Clarinda residents, led by Charlie Richardson, also voted to get rid of their ward system when a councilman was forced to resign from the council when he moved to another ward. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but Clarinda was already having a difficult time finding individuals interested in serving on the council. Richardson thought that it was an even worse situation “when you have an experienced council person that would have to resign because of moving” so he started gathering petition signatures, and, in November 2012, the move to at-large elections appeared on the ballot.

Beyond Clarinda’s private struggles recruiting council candidates, the prison in Clarinda clearly skewed voter representation. While each of Clarinda’s three wards had approximately 1,800 residents on paper, the north ward was home to the Clarinda Correctional Facility where approximately 1,000 individuals confined in that facility constituted 50% of the ward’s population. An individual living in the north ward had twice the political clout of people in any other ward.

As Clarinda Mayor Gordon Kokenge told the Clarinda Herald Journal, “It’s just staggering how much the numbers have gone down on eligible voters on that end of town. What this thing really does is it just puts a balance back into it for everybody in the community.” Unsurprisingly, Clarinda residents voted for an at-large system.

The city of Berlin, New Hampshire faced a similar situation in 2011 when it was considering a redistricting plan that would have moved a councilor from ward three — the ward that had the state prison — to another ward. Not only would this have forced the ward three councilor to either resign or run against an existing candidate, but it was also likely that Berlin would have had difficulty filling the newly open spot. Councilor Diana Nelson told the Berlin Daily Sun that transitioning to an at-large election system might be an effective solution to attract qualified candidates from throughout the city. The councilors also realized that an at-large system could be the answer to the problem they were going to face when the new federal prison opened in a year. Counting the federal prison population — which was expected to be 2,000 people — as residents could have led to a prison gerrymandering situation four times as bad as the one that already existed due to the state prison. As Berlin’s mayor told the press, the wards were less essential than they had been in the past. He said the city’s political structure was set up back when Berlin had a much larger population and “was divided into separate ethnic neighborhoods.” Berlin voters agreed and overwhelmingly voted in favor of changing to an at-large system.

In contrast to these three cities, many communities in the country are moving the other way, from at-large systems to districts, because districts are often a better way to elect representatives and protect minority voting rights. But these three cities are all relatively small (with populations under 10,000) and, as Clarinda’s Richardson told the local newspaper, Clarinda is a rural area with no “great concentration of race, nationality, age or economic well being.”1

As we can see from these three cities, there are plenty of ways to avoid prison gerrymandering, including eliminating the prison count from the Census data or even eliminating districts as Berlin, NH and the two cities in Iowa did. And speaking of Iowa, I’ve now got my eye on Mount Pleasant, Iowa, which is currently the worst example of prison gerrymandering in the state. That city has a ward where almost half (42%) of one ward’s “residents” are actually people incarcerated at Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility. Will Mount Pleasant follow in the direction of Clarinda, Anamosa, and Berlin and say goodbye to phantom constituents? Only time will tell.

  1. Further, at-large election systems can be implemented alongside alternative voting systems — such as cumulative voting or limited voting — in order to better provide representation to minority communities with strong preferences. For more information on alternative voting systems, see: http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/justin-levitt-speaks-alternative-voting-systems-and-redistricting-consequences  ↩

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