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by Aleks Kajstura, October 16, 2009

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In Pennsylvania, there are eight state house districts that owe their existence to large prison populations in the 2000 Census. With the 2010 Census poised to count an even larger portion of the state behind bars, the prison count will be even more important.

The Census counts prisoners where they are incarcerated rather than where they legally reside. The Census figures are then used by states to draw district lines, apportioning voting power among their citizens. Regardless that the prisoners are not in any way connected to the community, they are counted in the local population making up the district. According to a recent article in Philadelphia’s The Legal Intelligencer, for example, State Rep. Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery, who represents District 147 with a population of 3,404 prisoners, has never gotten a single call from a prisoner.

Because the prisoners cannot vote but are credited to the prison district, their presence adds weight to every vote cast in the district. Such a system cannot be tolerated in a democracy. Indeed the Supreme Court barred practices such as this when it held, in Reynolds v. Sims, that: “The weight of a citizen’s vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives.” The Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause required that districts be drawn to be substantially equal in population.

According to our recent research, the vote distortion created by the Census count is not randomly distributed throughout the state. For example, while only 12% percent of Pennsylvania’s population is in Philadelphia, 40% of Pennsylvania’s prisoners are from the city. And virtually all — 99% — are incarcerated outside of the city.

That temporary placement however, does not change where Philadelphia’s incarcerated citizens reside under state law. Like most states, Pennsylvania law says that a prison cell is not a residence. But the growing prison population and an outdated method of counting that population combine to threaten how political decisions are made. Until the Census changes where it counts people in prison, the state of Pennsylvania needs to change how it uses Census data.


October 8, 2009

The 2010 Census is rapidly approaching, but an old error threatens the count, charges a new report by the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative. The report explains that the U.S. Census counts state and federal prisoners as residents of the prison location, and that creates big problems for democracy in Massachusetts. Crediting prisoners to the prison towns leads to unequal distributions of political power within the state.

Under Massachusetts law prisoners — who can’t vote — are legal residents of their pre-incarceration homes. The Census Bureau counts these people in the wrong spot, and that will create a big problem when the state next updates its legislative districts after the 2010 Census. Legislative districts must be updated each decade to ensure that each district contains the same number of residents.

The report states that five Massachusetts House districts meet federal minimum population requirements only because they include incarcerated people as local residents. In these five districts, the presence of the prisons in the Census data enables every group of 95 residents near the prisons to claim as much political power in the State House as each group of 100 residents elsewhere. By using Census Bureau counts of prison populations to pad out legislative districts with prisons, Massachusetts is inflating the votes of residents who live near prisons in violation of the Supreme Court’s “one person one vote” rule.

“How the Census counts people in prison is a little understood or noticed problem,” said report author Elena Lavarreda, “but it’s important that the public know how the Census is diluting their votes.”

The report focuses on the harm to democracy caused by the 2000 Census, but warns that the Census Bureau intends to repeat the mistake of 2000. According to executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, Peter Wagner, “The next Census is in 6 months, so unless the state acts fast, democracy will have to wait until the 2020 Census.”

The report, “Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Massachusetts”, is available at http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/ma/

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