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Alabama County Commissioners May Be In For an Unpleasant Surprise in 2011

by Lauren Marcous, August 9, 2010

Counties across Alabama eagerly await the release of the 2010 Census data, so they can begin the process of redrawing their County Commission district boundaries. Though this may sound like ‘business as usual,’ some county commissioners may be in for an unfortunate surprise.

In the 2010 Census, more than 34,000 Alabama residents were counted in the wrong place because the Census Bureau treats prisons as if they are residential homes. However, the Code of Alabama § 17-3-32 says that a prison cell is not a residence and in order to change one’s residency status, a person must voluntarily remain absent from their previous domicile with intent to claim a new one. Most people who are in prison are serving short sentences averaging less than 3 years, after which they return to their community of origin. Clearly, most incarcerated people have no intention of maintaining a new residence at the correctional facility where they are temporarily placed. Despite these facts, several counties failed to notice the discrepancy between Alabama law and the Census Bureau’s methodology and based their districts on prison counts.

Counting the incarcerated population as residents of the prison district is problematic because they are barred from voting and are not part of the local community. They are not actual constituents of the Commissioner who represents the district; rather, they are phantom constituents who serve only to inflate the population count. Since the incarcerated people are not truly residents, using them to pad the district gives more voting power to the real residents, while diluting the voting power of residents in other districts without prisons.

For example, in Bibb County the prison population from Bibb Correctional Facility was included as part of a commission district population. As a result, 21% of the 5th district is incarcerated. In terms of voting power, every 79 residents in District 5 have as much political power as 100 residents in other non-prison districts. Other counties, including Talladega County and Coosa County, use the prison population to pad their districts, as well.

But one county in Alabama chooses to reject the Census Bureau’s faulty count of prison populations. Escambia County avoids giving the people who live near the prison 10% more political influence than residents of other county districts by removing the incarcerated population before county commissioner lines are drawn. By excluding the prison population, Escambia County ensures that all of its residents have equal representation.

Ideally, the Census Bureau should change where it counts incarcerated people. They should be counted as residents of their last home addresses, not the prison. Although, it’s too late for this to happen in time for 2011 redistricting, there is more than enough time for the problem of prison-based gerrymandering to be eradicated by the 2020 Census. In the interim, other counties should follow the lead of Escambia County and exclude the prison population before they begin redistricting.

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