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Census Bureau’s method of counting prisoners steals political clout from Las Vegas and Reno

by Peter Wagner, December 20, 2004

Current system favors rural counties at the Nevada Legislature

The Census Bureau’s method of counting prisoners reduces the population of Nevada’s urban areas and transfers political clout to rural districts, according to a report released last week by the Prison Policy Initiative, an organization that conducts research and advocacy on incarceration policy, and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

A little known quirk in the Census counts people in prison as if they were residents of the prison town. “This inflates the population of rural areas that host prisons, and shortchanges the areas most prisoners come from,” said report author Peter Wagner.

Nevada’s prison population grew five times larger from 1980 to 2000, which accentuates the problem. The biggest beneficiary of this Census counting practice is Pershing County, one of the 21 counties in the country that has at least 21% of its Census population in prison.

The largest losers are Reno and Las Vegas where most of the prisoners come from, and anyone who needs accurate statistics. For example, the Census reports that Pershing County more than doubled its Black population in the 1990s. But that is the prison population growing, not the actual residents of the county.

“By counting prisoners as residents of rural counties, the Census Bureau steals the political clout that rightly belongs in Las Vegas and Reno and this is wrong,” said Bob Fulkerson State Director of PLAN. “Our lawmakers should demand that the Census Bureau change the way it counts prisoners. The way they do it now flies in the face of our state’s Constitution.”

Fulkerson noted that Nevada’s Constitution explicitly states that a prison cannot be a residence. He said state officials need to notify the Census Bureau now that it needs to change the way it counts prisoners in Nevada, so that the next redistricting is done correctly.

Changing the numbers changes how democracy works, because legislative districts must be redrawn each decade to reflect the new population numbers from the Census.

“Miscounting prisoners changes the way that state legislative districts are drawn,” said Wagner. “This census policy creates an inaccurate picture of our communities, and state legislatures that rely on Census data likely violate the constitutional principle of one person one vote.”

The report identifies one district, Assembly District 35 that is 5.5% prisoners. Prisoners can’t vote in Nevada, 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 95 residents in District 35 gets as much of a say over state affairs as 100 people in Las Vegas or Reno,” said Wagner. “The Supreme Court’s ‘One Person One Vote’ rule was supposed to eliminate such large differences in voting power.”

The report also notes that Nevada’s African American communities are adversely affected by the Census Bureau’s outdated counting methods. It states that Blacks are almost 7 percent of Nevada’s population, yet more than 27 percent of prisoners are Black. Blacks in Nevada are incarcerated at four times the rate of Whites.

“The way the Census Bureau counts prisoners diminishes the political clout of our cities and in particular the Black neighborhoods of our cities,” said Dean Ishman, President of the Las Vegas Branch of the NAACP. “We must change the way the Bureau counts prisoners-it is a question of basic fairness.”

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The report is available at http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/nevada/

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