A repugnant flashback?

by Peter Wagner, October 13, 2003  

Unfortunately, counting disenfranchised residents for purposes of mis-representation in the legislature is nothing new.

At the founding of the United States, the white population in the South was much smaller than that in the North. In a huge compromise, the original U.S. Constitution allowed the Southern states to count their Black slaves as 3/5ths of a white person. The slaves couldn’t vote, so the slaveowners got to “represent” this captive population in Congress and the Electoral College.

The result? Thanks to its added population, for 32 of the first 36 years of the country, the President was a slave-holder from the otherwise small state of Virginia. Artificially boosting the political power of the South created a national stalemate that prevented the creation of a democratic solution to the slavery problem. What might have been resolved peacefully in the 1790s became the Civil War in the 1860s.

Today, a similar democratic and economic impasse presents itself in the debate over crime control policy. As the economy constricts and state budgets contract, it is absolutely essential that our political structure be responsive to changing needs of the people.

Would a democratically constituted legislature support expensive prisons over proven-effective drug treatment? Counting our population at their true residences and apportioning political power accordingly would be a great way to find out.

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  • September 21, 2016:
    Executive Director Peter Wagner will be speaking at Claremont McKenna College in California. Details TBA.

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