New prisons mean new challenge for democracy in rural county

by Peter Wagner, October 20, 2008

According to the Chippewa Herald, the construction of new state prisons in Chippewa County, Wisconsin has inflated county population estimates, making the county appear to be the 4th fastest growing county in the state. The population estimates were prepared by the state, but are based on U.S. Census methodology that counts people in prison as residents of the prison location. Depending on how the data is used, crediting thousands of prisoners to the wrong spot can create a mildly annoyingor amusing — distortion in a county’s statistical image.

But Chippewa County is about to experience a far more serious impact from the prison miscount that could radically dilute the political power of almost every county resident over their own government. While the statistical uses of the Census get a lot of public attention, the most important use of the Census is for redistricting, and how state and local government power is distributed should be of concern to everyone.

Each resident of Chippewa County is represented by one of 29 Supervisors who are each elected from a different district. Each decade after the census, the districts are redrawn to ensure that each district has the same number of people. In this way, every resident has the same access to government regardless of where she or he lives.

One of the new prisons in Chippewa County is large enough to create a bigger vote dilution problem than in any other county we’ve studied in Wisconsin. If the districts were redrawn today, the district that included the Stanley Correctional Institution would be 72% prisoners. Every group of 28 residents near the prison would be given as much as say over the future of the county as 100 residents in every other district. Giving a small group of people 3 times as much political power as other residents because they happen to have a prison nearby isn’t just unfair; it violates state and federal law.

In our recent report, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Wisconsin, we traced how the state legislature, the county boards and the rural city councils are, by relying on flawed Census counts to draw districts, unwittingly giving some residents extra influence in violation of state and federal law. Wisconsin doesn’t allow people in prison to vote, but state law says that a prisoner’s residence remains where she or he lived prior to incarceration.

Ideally, the U.S. Census would change how it counts people in prison so that states and counties could use that data to draw districts without running afoul of state and federal laws. But counties are not powerless while they wait for the Census to do the right thing.

Chippewa County could join similar counties across the country and remove the prison populations from the Census data prior to redistricting. In Michigan, whether the potential for vote distortion was very large or quite small, nearly all counties ignored the prison population when drawing their districts. Gratiot County modified the census data to avoid creating a district that would have been 50% prisoners. In Lapeer County, using the census would have meant a district with 6% prisoners — 12 times smaller than the problem facing Chippewa — but even there the county clerk told us that they took the effort to exclude the prison population because the prisoners were “not really residents.”

Chippewa is just starting to see the effects of the prison miscount on its statistical image, but it doesn’t have a lot of time to decide whether its internal balance is going to be radically altered. The U.S. Census will take place in 2010, and redistricting will start in 2011.

If Chippewa County believes that the people who live near Stanley Correctional are 3 times as important as the people who live everywhere else in the county, they should do nothing. Use the Census Bureau’s data that count the prison populations as local residents to draw districts.

But if Chippewa County believes that all of its residents should have the same amount of political power regardless of where they live — as required by the Supreme Court’s “One Person One Vote” rules — the county should start planning to adjust the Census now.

More than 55,000 people live in Chippewa County but not immediately adjacent to a prison. The best way for those residents to make sure that the prison does not distort their county government is to start asking their county officials one question: “Are you planning to use the Census Bureau’s prison count to dilute my vote?”

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