Phantom Constituents in the Census — New York Times Editorial

by Peter Wagner, September 26, 2005

New York Times Editorial, September 26, 2005

A longstanding quirk in census rules counts incarcerated people as “residents” of the prisons where most are held for only a short time, instead of counting them in the towns and cities where they actually live. This practice was scarcely noticeable 30 years ago, when the prison population was insignificant. But with 1.4 million people in prison today, this padding of electoral districts’ population figures shifts political power from the densely populated urban areas where most inmates live to the less populated rural districts where prisons are often built.

In 48 of 50 states the inmates cannot vote anyway. But they still count as constituents when state legislators sit down to draw up legislative districts. This bogus inflation gives prison districts undeserved strength in the state legislature and more influence than they would otherwise have in state affairs. Indeed, many legislative districts actually contain far too few people to be legal districts at all when the nonvoting inmates are subtracted. In some places, the phantom constituents account for more than 20 percent of the population count.

This arrangement has an unfortunate resemblance to early America under slavery, when slaves were barred from the polls but counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of apportioning representation in Congress. In addition, legislators from the rural prison counties often use this purloined power to vote against the interests of the urban communities from which prison inmates most typically come. By counting impoverished inmates as citizens, the prison counties also reap more than a fair share of federal dollars that are earmarked for the poor.

Several experts, including a former director of the census, have suggested that the bureau count inmates at their preprison residences. A panel reviewing residency issues in general has heard compelling testimony that should drive it to the same conclusion. And instead of waiting until the next census in 2010, the Census Bureau should simply change its procedures now. Counting inmates where they live would cure what has clearly become a troubling flaw in the census process.