Should prisoners count when drawing legislative districts?

by Peter Wagner, January 2, 2010  

Jennifer Fusco of Oneida County’s Utica Observer-Dispatch in upstate New York writes about our report on prison-based gerrymandering in rural New York counties in Should prisoners count when drawing legislative districts?

The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the prisons, not of their home addresses, and that creates a big problem for legislative redistricting.

In two [PDF] of Oneida County’s 29 county legislative districts, a third or more of the population is not local residents but incarcerated people from elsewhere in the state. This gives every group of 62-67 people in the prison districts as much political influence in the county as 100 people elsewhere in the county.

Bills are pending in the legislature to fix the Census Bureau’s prison miscount state-wide, and 13 New York Counties already reject the flawed Census counts. [PDF]

According to the article, the County Executive, the county’s Majority Leader (who himself represents a prison district), and a second legislator each said they were unaware that New York State law gives counties the discretion to choose the population base used for redistricting and that they could choose to draw districts without the prison populations. Each supported the idea of correcting the Census, and framed the issue as a question of fair and equal representation.

Ms. Fusco also interviewed the Census Bureau’s Deputy Regional Director, Bruce Kaminski. He explained why the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison, but:

When asked whether it’s fair to districts that have prisons compared with those that don’t, he wouldn’t say.

“We do not make that determination whether it’s fair or unfair,” he said.

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