Rural citizens call for change in how Census counts prisoners
by Peter Wagner, September 6, 2004
This fact of the week is a letter written by 3 residents of Franklin County in upstate New York to the Census Bureau describing how rural New York counties with prisons would benefit from a Census Bureau decision to stop counting prisoners as residents of the prison town. The letter chronicles “unnecessary controversy and confusion” as rural residents react to flawed Census data that would distort how political power is distributed among county residents.
July 9, 2004
U.S. Census Bureau
Federal Building 3
Washington D.C. 20233
Re: Establishment of the 2010 Census Redistricting Program
We are writing to express our concern that the Census Bureau’s method of counting incarcerated people as residents of the facility makes it difficult to use Census data in local county redistricting. We are two former legislators in Franklin County, New York and a private citizen. All of us have been involved in redistricting litigation to enforce the creation of equally sized districts.
While the Census Bureau is very helpful in adapting its geographic units so that county government can readily use Census data in local redistricting, we have found that who the Census Bureau counts within our election districts creates unnecessary controversy and confusion. Left uncorrected, Census counts of prisoners leads to a significant change in how our county legislatures work.
Franklin County is in Northern New York on the Canadian border. Census 2000 reported our population at 45,622 including 5,512 state prisoners in 5 state prisons. Almost 5,000 of the prisoners are in 3 large prisons in the Village of Malone. We do not consider the prisoners to be residents of our community as they originate outside of our community, have no interaction with it and immediately leave the district when their sentences expire or the Department of Corrections chooses to transfer them elsewhere.
Franklin County has always excluded state prisoners from the base figures used to draw our legislative districts. To do otherwise would contradict how we view our community and would lead to an absurd result: creating a district near Malone that was 2/3rds disenfranchised prisoners who come from other parts of the state. Such a district would dilute the votes of every Franklin County resident outside of that area and skew the county legislature. We know of no complaints from prisoners as a result, as they no doubt look to the New York City Council for the local issues of interest to them.
While Franklin County has consistently excluded prisoners from its redistricting population, our research in to the practices in other counties has revealed a diversity of approaches. This diversity stems not from a difference of opinion on whether prisoners are a part of the prison town, but from a difference of opinion as to whether it is permissible to modify Census Bureau figures. We will give the examples of Greene County (south of Albany), St. Lawrence County (directly to our west) and Wayne County (east of Rochester).
Prior to 2002, the Greene County New York Legislature used unadjusted Census figures for its county redistricting. An increase in the prison population during the 1990s meant that 6% of the county’s Census population was in two state prisons in Coxsackie in the northeast corner of the county. When The Daily Mail reported that Coxsackie would be getting an extra legislator from the arrangement, there was a large protest and the county reversed course and drew district lines based on data that excluded the prison population.
St. Lawrence County, which borders Franklin, is the only county we know of to have previously excluded prisoners from its redistricting base and now includes them. The county did this on the basis of advice from their county attorney about a 1993 state case, which other counties read to require exclusion. Factually separate from the legal analysis, the legislators admit that the prisoners have no stake in issues of county taxation or policy making. Most critically, there was a large public effort in the county to attempt to repeal the most recent redistricting legislation precisely because large external populations were included making the votes of 8 residents near the prisons worth as much as 10 residents elsewhere in the county.
According to our survey, about 1/3rd of the New York counties with prisons exclude prisoners from their local redistricting population base. This may be a minority of counties, but with the exception of St. Lawrence County, we know of no local county that included the prisoners after the issue became known to the public. In fact, our research in Wayne County may express the magnitude of the problems caused by how populations are credited to our communities.
The Wayne County Board of Supervisors is apportioned with weighted votes to each town. The Board told us that they do not consider prisoners to be residents and including prisoners in the Butler Shock Camp would have a significant impact on the weighted voting scheme. However, the County was under the incorrect assumption that prisoners were not credited to the town of Butler. While the Board was aware that Butler had a small population, its actual population is much smaller than the Board — relying on Census figures — had been lead to believe.
We appreciate the data that the Census Bureau supplies to our communities and thank you for your efforts to make it easier to use this data in our redistricting efforts. As part of your deliberations establishing the 2010 Redistricting Data Program, we urge you to not count prisoners as residents of our communities.
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this process.
646 Indian Carry Road
Tupper Lake NY 12986
(Wells, et al v. Franklin County co-Plaintiff)
Mark Flack Wells
Attorney at Law
P.O. Box 505
Fort Covington NY 12937
(Former Franklin County Legislator)
(Wells, et al v. Franklin County lead Plaintiff)
18 County Route 21
Constable NY 12926
(Former Franklin County Legislator)