Texas sees damaged democracy from Census counts of prisoners

by Peter Wagner, November 8, 2004  

The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as if they were residents of the towns that contain the prisons and jails. Thanks to the rapid rise in incarceration over the last 20 years, this once obscure quirk results in a significant boost to Texas’ rural areas that host prisons while reducing the population of the urban areas where most prisoners come from.

States are required to redraw their legislative boundaries each decade so that each will contain the same number of people as required by the 14th Amendment’s One Person One Vote principle. Equally sized districts ensure that each resident has an equal access to government regardless of where she or he lives.

This concept breaks down when the Census data doesn’t reflect where people actually live, in this case the 244,363 people in the Census counted as residents of correctional institutions. My newest report, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Texas, found one legislative district, House District 13 (which includes Walker county, represented by Lois Kolkhorst) that counts among its census population 16,670 incarcerated people. The District is 12% prisoners, a higher figure than in any other state legislative district yet discovered in the United States.

Prisoners can’t vote in Texas, and on their release they will be returning to their home communities, but their presence at the prison town in the Census dilutes the votes of their family members back home. Every group of 88 residents in District 13 gets as much of a say over state affairs as 100 people in Houston or Dallas. This is exactly the kind of regional inequality in voting power that the Supreme Court’s ‘One Person One Vote’ rule was supposed to eliminate.

Source: Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Texas.