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Census Bureau counts Massachusetts prisoners in wrong place; access to democracy distorted

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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