Maine school board member says democracy is not a minor issue, prison-based gerrymandering must end

by Peter Wagner, July 17, 2009  

Maine Regional School Unit 13 board member Josiah Wilson is calling for an end to using prison counts to distort the school board’s weighted voting system. He cites the letter [PDF] that Demos and the Prison Policy Initiative sent to the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, asking her to declare prison-based gerrymandering a violation of the principles of one person one vote.

He explains that “every resident of RSU 13 should have the same influence over the school board regardless of whether their town once housed prisoners.”

Josiah Wilson’s letter to the editor of the Herald Gazette in Rockland, Maine is below.

To the people,

It is with great disappointment that I’m reporting a recent vote by the Regional School Unit 13 School Board. The board rejected my motion to make our decisions fair and democratic. When the consolidation plan was conceived a voting system was designed where each town, in theory, gets a number of votes in proportion to the population in that town. A big mistake was made that needs to be corrected.

Maine law says that prisoners aren’t residents of the prison town, but we are relying on flawed Census counts that credited the now-closed Maine State Prison to the town of Thomaston. There are roughly 465 prisoners being counted. The unfortunate result gave every nine people in Thomaston as much of a say over our children’s education as 10 residents from the other towns. This is a classic case of vote dilution.

Lawyers from two national voting rights groups have already written to the Maine Department of Education asking the commissioner to throw out our voting system and order a new one that is based on our actual population. These folks have the right idea, but under Maine law we are powerless to adjust our voting system until the commissioner gives her approval.

I wanted to speed up the process. Unfortunately, when push came to shove our superintendent recommended that my fair voting resolution be defeated, and it was. In her view, the board shouldn’t waste time on a minor issue. I disagree. Democracy is never a minor issue.

As educators and leaders, we should know that nine is not equal to 10. Every resident of RSU 13 should have the same influence over the school board regardless of whether their town once housed prisoners.

Josiah R. Wilson
RSU 13 Board of Directors
Port Clyde
July 11, 2009

For more information, see my January report: Phantom Constituents in Maine’s Regional School Unit 13: How the Census Bureau’s outdated method of counting prisoners harms democracy which identified how the town of Thomaston, Maine, is able to use Census counts of a closed prison to exercise undue influence over the school board.

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