Phantom Voters in New York — New York Times editorial

by New York Times, July 23, 2007

new york times editorial thumbnailPrison-based gerrymandering is especially egregious in New York, where prison inmates — who are denied the right to vote — are routinely counted as “residents” to pad out legislative districts. This practice falsely inflates the political power of districts with prisons, while undercutting districts with larger voting populations.

State senators who owe their seats to prison gerrymandering defend it tooth and nail. But a new study from the New York-based research group Prison Policy Initiative, entitled “Phantom Constituents in the Empire State,” found that 13 counties have excluded inmates from the local redistricting count because they thought it unfairly stacked the political deck. Some of the counties came to that conclusion after learning that imprisoned people would have made up 30 percent or more of proposed county legislative districts.

The Board of Supervisors for Essex County got it right when it wrote that counting prison inmates as residents unfairly diluted the voting weight of the county’s actual residents, especially since inmates “live in a separate environment, do not participate in the life of Essex County, and do not affect the social and economic character of the towns.”

The study found 16 counties where inmates were still counted as residents for redistricting purposes. But that is likely to change as citizens learn that districts with prisons are wielding undeserved influence in county affairs. The same thing needs to happen in the New York State Legislature.

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