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New research on Nevada, Montana, and Idaho: How the census is watering down the voting power of some communities

by Peter Wagner, February 7, 2005

The Census Bureau counts prisoners not at their homes but as if they were residents of the town that contained the prison. This administrative quirk reduces the population of the communities where most prisoners come from and swells the population of rural communities that house prisons. With the incarceration rate now 4 times higher than it was 20 years ago, and with prisons increasingly being built in communities far from where most prisoners originate, what was once a trivial matter is now a critical one.

When the Census began in 1790, uses for the data were limited. Population statistics were rarely used for planning purposes until the 20th century. It was not until the 1960s that state legislatures were required to periodically redraw legislative district lines to comply with the “One Person One Vote” rule of equal numbers of people in each legislative district. In 1790, the Census’ sole role was to count the number of people in each state to determine their relative populations for purposes of Congressional reapportionment. It didn’t matter — for purposes of comparing Nevada’ population to Utah’s — whether an incarcerated person was counted at home or in the Nevada State Prison, as long as they were counted in the right state. Census data is used very differently today than it was in 1790, and our society has changed radically, but the Census’ method of counting prisoners has unfortunately remained the same.

According to a series of “Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout” reports released in December, Nevada, Montana and Idaho rely on U.S. Census data to draw their legislative districts. Districts are redrawn each decade so that each districts is of equal size based on the number of people living there. Having equal numbers of people in each legislative district ensures that each person in that district has equal access to government. This concept is known as the “One Person One Vote” rule, but it breaks down when the U.S. Census data does not reflect the actual population of the state.

The Nevada Constitution, and Idaho and Montana election statutes say that incarceration (prison) does not change an individual’s residence. A prisoner’s residence remains the place that she or he lived prior to incarceration. But the Census has its own method of counting prisoners and states unwittingly violate their own laws when they use Census data to redraw districts based on where the Census has counted them.

In one Idaho district, 6.9% of the district’s population is prisoners and 5.5% of one Nevada Assembly District is incarcerated. Montana contains one district, House District 85, that is almost 15% prisoners, a higher figure than in any other state legislative district yet discovered in the United States. House District 85 counts among its census population 1,308 incarcerated people. However, none of these “constituents” are allowed to vote in this district. As a result, every group of 85 residents in Montana House District 85 is given the political power of 100 residents elsewhere in the state. Counting prisoners in House District 85 dilutes the votes of their family members in their true “home” districts, where they will be returning to when they complete their sentence.

Given the disproportionate confinement of Native Americans in Montana, Blacks in Nevada and Native Americans and Latinos in Idaho, this outdated Census practice has a particularly severe affect on these communities. For example, 95% of the Blacks in Pershing County, Nevada and 91% of the Blacks in White Pine County, NV are incarcerated. This doesn’t mean that the these counties are extremely racist or punitive, rather it reflects a population imported from somewhere else. Because the Census didn’t ask, it’s impossible to say exactly where these Black citizens should have been counted, but they most likely came from Las Vegas and not the rural Nevada Assembly District 35 that contains these counties.

“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 said in a press release for the Nevada report. “We must change the way the Bureau counts prisoners — it is a question of basic fairness.”

The reports called for citizens and state officials to ask the Census Bureau to stop assigning prisoners to the address of the facility and instead count them as residents of their home communities. To find out more about this national problem, visit PrisonersoftheCensus.org.

This is an article I prepared for the winter issue of Justice Matters, the newsletter of the Western Prison Project, discussing how Census counts of prisoners distort democracy in their region. –Peter Wagner

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