Prison gerrymandering gives extra political power to legislators who have prisons in their districts. We put numbers on the problem and sparked a movement to protect our democratic process from the overgrown prison system.
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"Surprise! A film about gerrymandering is actually one of the most fascinating political documentaries to spring up since Bush left office. Timely and compelling, Gerrymandering clearly explains the history and importance of redistricting and why it shouldn’t be left to elected officials…. Every American voter should see this film before 2011."
Last week, both The Capital and the Baltimore Sun published excellent pieces on a new Maryland law. The first-in-nation law will improve fairness and accuracy of the Census data used for redistricting purposes.
Both pieces (one article, one editorial), point out an important part of what this bill seeks to rectify—the fact that Somerset County, which is 42% African-American, has yet to elect an African-American County Commissioner in its history.
Previous to a 1986 lawsuit that intended to correct a vote dilution problem in Somerset County, the county had “at-large” voting, meaning that there were no districts. Despite having a large population of African-Americans, Somerset County was unable to elect a Black commissioner, because the voting power of the African-American community was essentially diluted by the majority-white voters.
The lawsuit was settled, and Somerset County was divided into districts, yet still not one African-American commissioner was elected. Why? Because shortly after the lawsuit was settled, a new prison opened in what was intended to be the majority African-American district, splitting the actual African-American population into two districts. Again African-Americans were unable to draw an effective majority-African American district. The passing of this bill will finally make it possible for Somerset County to elect its first African-American commissioner.
While some legislators with prisons in their districts opposed the bill, fearful of the shifts it might cause, some legislators with prisons in their districts supported it.
[Joseline] Pena-Melnyk and other District 21 state representatives – Del. Ben Barnes, Del. Barbara Frush and Sen. Jim Rosapepe, all Democrats who voted for the bill, too – conceivably could lose ground because their district includes Jessup [Correctional Facility] as well.
Pena-Melnyk believes the importance of equity overrides any parochial interest.:
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “To me, it is just a fair way to count.”
Earlier this week, I wrote a blog entry critical of an Atlanta Journal Constitution article which implied that rural counties with prisons were benefiting from poverty aid intended for urban communities. I wrote about the reality of rural poverty and explained that poverty is calculated in such a way that prison populations do not affect the formulas.
I wrote that,in short, Calhoun County is not getting rich from the Census Bureau’s prison count.
WALB-TV, which covers that part of Georgia, repeated the same misunderstanding about poverty funding in its coverage, but brought out a little more detail about how the Census Bureau’s prison count directly costs the rural community funds:
“Because of the number of people in the prison, we have a higher population which means we have to pay our probate judge, our superior court clerk, and all these people higher salaries based on the inmate population. And they (prisoners) don’t pay any taxes in Calhoun County. So citizens have to foot that bill,” says [county commission chairman Mike] Stuart.
That’s right. Calhoun has to pay its officials more because the prison population makes the county look more populous. Prison Policy Initiative’s Aleks Kajstura found the statutorily mandated salaries. The minimum salary for Probate Judges and Superior Court Clerks, and some other county officials is set by population. For example:
500,000 or more
(See Ga. Code Ann. § 15-6-88 and Ga. Code Ann. § 15-9-63 )
The prison population in Calhoun County pushes the county into the next pay bracket (with more than 6,000 population), thereby costing the county more than $11,000 a year in required payments to the Probate Judge, County Superior Court Clerk and other officials.
The lesson we should draw from this? 1) Rural prison counties aren’t getting rich from the Census Bureau’s prison miscount; 2) Fighting over illusory funding streams distracts from the much larger impact that counting prisoners in the wrong place has on the operation of our democracy.
And that funding distraction is regrettable, particularly since Calhoun County itself already adjusts the Census when redistricting the County, basing the districts on the number of actual residents; while the state of Georgia continues to cling to unadjusted Census data which ignores the home address of incarcerated people, and counts them as if they lived in prison.
The NAACP has, at its last two annual conventions, passed resolutions calling for the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people as residents of their home addresses and for the association to lobby for change. Last year’s successful resolution was written by Branch #4003, incarcerated at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Missouri, and adopted by the general membership.
The branch has written a new resolution for 2010 (below) which was approved by the branch membership in late March. The resolution must be approved by the Missouri state conference before it can be considered by national officials this summer.–Peter
Resolution: End Prison-Based Gerrymandering
NAACP Branch #4003, Cameron, Missouri
WHEREAS, the U.S. Census Bureau counts people in prison as residents of the community that contains the prison, not the community that they are legal residents of and to which they will return; and
WHEREAS, census data is the basis for legislative districts, counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison community enhances the weight of a vote cast in a district with a prison while diluting the weight of votes in all other districts; and
CRANSTON — The city has eased up on its resistance to a bill that would change the way state prison inmates are counted for state and local election purposes, as long as the bill doesn’t weaken the city’s position when it seeks population-based grants or other benefits, a city official said Wednesday.
The bill would not affect funding formulas, so this removes a major political obstacle to Census reform in Rhode Island!
In related exciting news, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund has sent statements of support of the bill to the Senate and the House.
Previous blog coverage of the effort to end prison-based gerrymandering in Rhode Island:
Loeb grapples with the concept of “political prisoner” and asks, “Does the United States actually have political prisoners?”
There might be many reasons why the answer to the question is a firm “yes!”, but in Dr. Loeb’s piece he discusses two ways in which, “…millions of American citizens in the criminal justice system … are pawns in our political system”; first, through “voter suppression”, and second, through the “enumeration of prisoners”.
After a discussion of voter suppression, he asks the reader:
What could be worse that suppressing someone’s right to vote?
He cleverly answers:
Stealing their right to vote and attributing it to someone else.
Otherwise known as–prison-based gerrymandering! Loeb clearly demonstrates the negative state and local level impact that counting prisoners as residents of their prison cell has on American democracy, but he finds room for optimism. He applauds the Census Bureau for their early release of the group quarter counts:
Fortunately, the census bureau has become more attentive to the situation. Census Director Robert Groves has agreed to identify which census blocks contain group quarters such as correctional facilities early enough so that state and local redistricting bodies can choose to use this data to draw fair districts.
The Census Bureau counts people in prison as residents of the correctional facility, even though they can’t vote and remain legal residents of their homes. When state and county legislatures use prison counts to draw legislative districts, they unintentionally pad the legislative districts that contain prisons and dilute the weight of votes cast in all other districts. Notwithstanding the Census Bureau’s overly simplistic rhetoric, there is very little financial impact from where people in prison are counted in the Census.
Nearly one of every four people in Calhoun County sits behind bars. They can’t vote, check out a library book or drive county-maintained roads.
But they can bring the southwest Georgia county a lot of federal money while bolstering the community’s political clout….
Rural Georgia’s gain is urban Georgia’s pain: Financially strapped cities want their fair share of $450 billion dispensed annually by Washington, particularly in a recession when budgets are tight. The money, based largely on census counts, pays for roads, Medicaid, lunch programs and other federal programs.
Actually, much of the so-called “population-based” aid is not distributed directly to local areas, and most government aid formulas are too sophisticated to be fooled by where people in prison are counted. Medicaid reimbursements and federal highway funds are block grants to states, so it doesn’t matter where in a state a prisoner is counted as long as he is counted in the correct state. Federal poverty programs are based in part of Census calculations of poverty, which by definition exclude prison and other group quarters populations. The federal program that subsidizes school lunch programs is even more sophisticated, looking only at the number of children in poverty. In short, Calhoun County is not getting rich from the Census Bureau’s prison count.
The vice-Chairman of the Calhoun County Commission says as much:
“The prison does cost our county some money and some wear, tear and stress,” said Richard West, vice chairman of the Calhoun County Commission. “There are some pluses and minuses both ways. But it all comes out in the wash.”
What matters in a county like Calhoun is not the census, but jobs:
“We’ve got agriculture and we’ve got the prison. We’ve got no other industrial activities,” said West, who owns the IGA in nearby Edison. “And there’s 300 jobs in this county that wouldn’t be there if the prison wasn’t here. We need those jobs.”
So while the facts do not support the popular conception that counties with prisons are receiving poverty assistance because of the prison, I don’t blame the vice-Chairman for not looking for reasons to reduce services in the county:
West isn’t bothered that the prisoners, who require very little by way of county services, pad Calhoun’s federal payments. Poor counties, he reckons, deserve all the help they can get.
Rural poverty is very real. In 2000, almost 27% of Calhoun County was in poverty. (Recall that prisoners are NOT included in the poverty calculations. Poverty statistics include only the people living in households.) The county benefits from 300 jobs at the prison and it still has one of the highest poverty rates in the state.) Urban Atlanta, by contrast, had a poverty rate under 16%, and Dekalb County’s poverty rate was under 11%. I know that urban Atlanta would like more anti-poverty funding, but fighting with rural Georgia over illusory sources of money won’t help anyone.
So what matters about the Census Bureau’s prison miscount? Democracy.
But would you be surprised to learn that Calhoun County is both a victim of prison-based gerrymandering and a national leader at avoiding prison-based gerrymandering? The article explains the concept of “One Person One Vote” well, but gets confused in the application:
After each census, local and state officials trek to the State Capitol to redraw legislative districts. By counting prisoners, Wagner says, county commission and state House and Senate districts can be unfairly padded with constituents who can’t vote. Federal law requires that all districts be based on equal population so that each constituent has the same access to, and representation in, his or her government.
Under Georgia law, a prison cell is not a residence because a residence must be chosen voluntarily. Padding Calhoun County’s population with people who are residents of other parts of the state benefits the county in the state legislature, but far less than the article says:
Calhoun County voters, therefore, have 25 percent more power than voters in similar-size legislative districts that don’t have a prison. In other words, it pays … to live near a prison.
While about 25% of Calhoun County’s population in the Census is incarcerated and the county looks to be 25% larger than it really is, the county must share the 149th House district with 5 additional counties that do not contain prisons. The net enhancement to each vote cast in that district is about 3%. That is a significant vote enhancement, but it’s far smaller than the 11% vote enhancement given to district 141 near Milledgeville. As a result, all voters who are not in district 141 see their votes diluted on state issues. That’s not fair, to the voters of Calhoun County or voters in any other part of the state.
And I think Calhoun County might agree. When they last updated their County Commission districts, the county choose to ignore the Calhoun State Prison when drawing the districts. You can even see this visually in the below map of their County Commission districts. The state prison is to the west of the town of Morgan, and district two simply doesn’t include the prison.
Ideally, the Census Bureau would have counted people in prison at their home addresses. But from the perspective of Calhoun County, counting people at their home addresses and not counting them at all is basically the same thing: either way they aren’t included in Calhoun County.
The state of Georgia should follow the lead of Maryland and develop a system to adjust the data used for redistricting to count people in prison at their home addresses. But at the very least the state of Georgia should do state-wide what the city of Milledgeville and the counties of Calhoun, Dooly, Macon, Tattnall, Telfair and Wilcox do: reject the Census Bureau’s prison miscount. For redistricting purposes, assign prisoners to an unknown address so that they do not affect the redistricting formulas. Some voters should not get extra influence just because they happen to live next to a large prison.