A portrait of Peter Wagner.
Peter Wagner
Executive Director
I need your help. For 14 years, the Prison Policy Initiative has been at the forefront of the movement to keep the prison system from exerting undue influence on our electoral process. Our work has changed how our democracy works in 4 states and hundreds of local governments. We've even won at the Supreme Court, but our long-term viability depends on people like you investing in our work.

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—Peter Wagner
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by Aleks Kajstura, October 15, 2015

A recent New York Times column suggests that our work with the ACLU against prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island and Florida is somehow at odds with the goal of representational equality for communities with non-citizen populations in Texas – a goal that we also share with the ACLU. But, this apparent contradiction disappears when you look more carefully at our organizations’ arguments in each case.

As we wrote last week:

Currently, the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as if they lived at the location of the prison instead of their home addresses. This can indeed result in representational inequality when states and localities use the data for redistricting. But the ultimate goal of reforming prison gerrymandering is not to eliminate incarcerated persons entirely from the population count. Rather, the four organizations that Dēmos is representing as amici curiae want to ensure that incarcerated persons are tabulated at the correct location, as constituents of their own legislators.

Despite this, the New York Times column asserts that our lawsuits in Rhode Island and Florida seek total exclusion of all incarcerated persons from population counts used for redistricting:

[T]he Florida and Rhode Island suits, brought on behalf of voters who said prisons in nearby districts were diluting the value of their votes, did not ask that the prisoners be counted elsewhere, only that they not be counted locally.

This is not correct because the Times is conflating two distinct problems caused by the Census Bureau, and ignoring the remedies that different levels of government are able to provide with respect to incarcerated persons.

As we explained in our amicus brief:

In counting incarcerated people at the location of the prison, the Census Bureau makes two distinct errors that affect redistricting: 1) it fails to count incarcerated people where they reside, and 2) it counts incarcerated people at the location of the facility. A city or county has the power only to correct the second part of the Bureau’s miscount – assigning people to the wrong location – and not the first part – failing to assign them to the correct location. … This data limitation with respect to incarcerated persons in no way suggests that non-voters should be disregarded in redistricting, when such persons have close ties to the community where they are actually counted and cannot even theoretically be counted at some other location by the Census Bureau.

The Evenwel plaintiffs seek to entirely exclude all non-citizens from redistricting counts, regardless of their residence in, and strong ties to, the community in which they are counted. By contrast, the plaintiffs in the Cranston case have made a careful, fact-based determination of where people incarcerated at the facility actually reside, be it in Ward 6, elsewhere in Cranston or outside of the city and want the city’s districts to treat those groups separately.

Simply put, Cranston does not have the authority to fix prison gerrymandering problems outside its jurisdictional boundaries, and so plaintiffs have not sought to force them to do so.

We devote 7 pages of our brief to an explanation of how and why people remain residents of their home address, even when incarcerated. And we contrast that with non-citizens:

[U]nlike incarcerated persons who are counted in the prison location, non-U.S. citizens are counted in communities where they have strong actual ties to other members of the community. Indeed, they often reside and are counted in households that include family members who are U.S. citizens. Unlike incarcerated persons, noncitizens and other non-voters are able to participate in the economic and civic life of the community where they are counted – they shop at grocery and clothing stores, gas stations and other establishments; attend religious services and support religious establishments; work and pay taxes in the community; and engage in civic and volunteer activities. None of these avenues for community engagement are available to the incarcerated persons who are counted as residents of the prison where they are housed.

These differences are why our brief says that the Evenwel plaintiffs are drawing a “false parallel” to prison gerrymandering.

by Aleks Kajstura, September 30, 2015

If you’ve been keeping up on current events in redistricting, chances are you’ve been hearing a lot about the Evenwel v. Abbott case recently. Here’s the rundown from a prison gerrymandering perspective, with our partners at Dēmos:

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to hear a case in which litigants in Texas are asking the Court to undermine the core constitutional principle of “one person, one vote.” In this case, Evenwel v. Abbott, the plaintiffs are asking the Court to require states, when drawing district lines, to ignore anyone not already eligible or registered to vote. Their case will be argued in the Court’s current term.

Dēmos opposes this misguided effort to treat non-voters as non-persons under the Fourteenth Amendment. To assist the Court in understanding the full ramifications of the case, Dēmos has authored a friend-of-the-court brief addressing an issue that particularly affects incarcerated persons – the issue of “prison gerrymandering.” The problem of prison gerrymandering, where incarcerated people are used to pad out districts that host prisons, is not directly at issue in the Evenwel case, but the plaintiffs in Evenwel have invoked the issue of prison gerrymandering as if it supported their arguments for discounting non-voters. Our “friend of the court” brief explains why they are wrong.

The brief was filed on behalf of four organizations whose members have long fought prison gerrymandering, DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality), EPOCA (Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement), VOCAL-NY (Voices of Community Activists & Leaders – New York), and VOTE (Voice of the Ex-Offender). Dēmos was joined as counsel on this brief by the Prison Policy Initiative.

Currently, the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as if they lived at the location of the prison instead of their home addresses. This can indeed result in representational inequality when states and localities use the data for redistricting. But the ultimate goal of reforming prison gerrymandering is not to eliminate incarcerated persons entirely from the population count. Rather, the four organizations that Dēmos is representing as amici curiae want to ensure that incarcerated persons are tabulated at the correct location, as constituents of their own legislators.

Our brief explains why treating incarcerated persons as “residents” of the prison where they are involuntarily detained, instead of their home communities, creates serious inaccuracies and distorts redistricting, whether or not the incarcerated persons are eligible to vote. It further explains how creating a constitutional requirement to exclude non-voting populations from the population base used for redistricting would not end prison gerrymandering, and in fact could make things worse.

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.

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