A portrait of Peter Wagner.
Peter Wagner
Executive Director
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—Peter Wagner
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Illinois bill reflects growing frustration with Census counts of prisoners

by Peter Wagner, February 14, 2005  

On February 2, Illinois Deputy Majority Leader Representative Arthur L. Turner introduced the Prisoner Census Adjustment Act to prevent the current U.S. Census practice of counting prisoners as residents of the prison location from distorting democracy in Illinois. While other advocates have been working to convince the U.S. Census to start counting prisoners as residence of their pre-incarceration homes, Chicago-based attorney Dan Johnson-Weinberger has been working with Representative Turner to craft a state-based solution to ensure that future Illinois legislative districts match the actual population of Illinois communities.

The bill is an interesting state-level approach to the national problem, similar to how Kansas currently adjusts Census counts of students and military, and similar to how Representative Dutton proposed that Texas adjust census counts of prisoners.

The Illinois bill requires the Secretary of State to create a specially modified version of the Census Bureau’s redistricting data for use in Illinois. The various corrections agencies in the state would be required to submit home address information to the Secretary of State, who in turn would change the Census data so it would reflect prisoners being counted at home rather than at the prison location.

This state-based approach avoids the harm seen in many states where districts are drawn using Census data to be 7% (in New York) 13% (in Texas) or 15% (in Montana) prisoners. (Research in Illinois is ongoing.) When a large percentage of a district’s population is not a resident of that area, the actual population of the district is smaller than it should be, resulting in a significant boost in the weight of a vote in that district. And conversely, when prisoners are counted outside of their home communities, the votes of the other members of that community see their votes diluted.

This bill is further documentation that states want incarcerated people to be counted as residents of their homes. The simplest, cheapest and most accurate place to change this policy is at the U.S. Census Bureau. But what Illinois is showing is that if the Census Bureau fails to act before the 2010 Census, states can, if they start planning now, avoid a skewed redistricting process.

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