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Peter Wagner
Executive Director
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Census miscounts prisoners, dilutes urban voting power

by Peter Wagner, February 21, 2005  

Back in 2000, the Census Bureau counted prisoners as if they actually lived in the town that contains the prison. According to recently published analysis, this administrative quirk reduced the population of the communities where most prisoners come from and swelled the population of the rural communities that host prisons. Each decade, census population data is used to draw legislative districts, so prisoners makes prison towns seem more populous — and therefore receive more political clout — than their population should have warranted.

Making matters worse, all states but Maine and Vermont bar state prisoners from voting, so prisoners are unable to influence the often pro-prison-expansion legislators whose clout they enhance. At the same time, the urban legislators who so frequently favor proven alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment see their population and political clout diminished.

According to my series of “Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout” reports, most state constitutions declare that incarceration does not change an individual’s residence. A prisoner’s residence remains the place that he or she lived prior to incarceration. At the same time, all states currently rely on federal census data for their redistricting process. Districts are redrawn each decade so that each district contains the same 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 where the actual population of the state resides.

Alongside the quadrupling of the incarceration rate in this country has been a growing disparity in where most prisoners come from and where they are incarcerated. According to my first report in New York State, 66% of the state’s prison population is from New York City, but 91% of the state’s prisoners are incarcerated in the upstate region. The Census method denied New York City credit for 43,740 of its residents and instead credited this population to distant and often politically hostile communities.

Even more critical than this distortion in regional political power is the impact on the political power of Blacks and Latinos in the state compared to Whites. New York State is 62% White, but 82% of the state’s prison population and 93% of the drug offenders are Black or Latino. Yet virtually all — 98% — of the prison cells are located in state Senate districts that are disproportionately White for the state.

As a result, disenfranchised Black and Latino prisoners from New York City are swelling the population base and political clout of the upstate politicians that are most fervently opposed to ending the unfair and unjust Rockefeller Drug Laws.

The Census counting method creates problems for democracy in virtually every state. Sixty percent of Illinois’ prisoners call Cook County (Chicago) home, yet 99% of the state’s prison cells are outside the county. Los Angeles County supplies 34% of California’s prisoners, yet only 3% of the state’s prisoners are incarcerated there. Philadelphia is the legal residence for 40% of Pennsylvania’s prisoners, but the County contains no state prisons. Wayne County (Detroit) is home for 20% of Michigan’s population. Almost 30% of the state’s prisoners are from Wayne County, but only 11% of the state’s cells are there.

In Texas, one rural district’s population is almost 12% prisoners. Every group of 88 residents in that district are represented in the state House as if they were 100 residents from urban Houston or Dallas. Even states with lower incarceration rates see serious distortions in their democratic processes. In one Montana District, 15% of the population is disenfranchised prisoners from other parts of the state.

When the Supreme Court, in 1963, required state legislative districts to be divided on an equal population basis, it explained its rationale. “[L]egislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.” The principle is that “[T]he weight of a citizen’s vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives.”

Prisoners are external populations that are not “traditionally” rural in any sense of the word. Allowing communities to take in populations by force, just to benefit at the state legislature, violates any sense of equal protection or fundamental fairness.

When evolving demographics meant more college students studying far from home and more Americans living overseas, the Census policy changed in order to more accurately reflect how many Americans were living where. Today, the growth in the prisoner population requires the Census to update its methodology once again. To be fair and accurate, the Census Bureau needs to start counting prisoners at their home addresses.

This article was originally prepared for the March issue of the Coalition for Prisoners Rights Newsletter.-Peter Wagner

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