Even small prisons can mean a big problem for democracy

by Peter Wagner, August 17, 2010  

The residents of the City of Hudson will benefit from New York State’s new law that will end the practice of prison-based gerrymandering.

Hudson, in Columbia County, has a city council form of government that attempts to comply with the Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” requirement by using a system of weighted voting. Rather than redraw districts each decade to ensure that each district has the same population, the city keeps the same wards but changes the number of votes exercised by each City Alderman. By keeping the votes proportional to population, each resident has the same access to government.

The problem for Hudson is that the U.S. Census data used to weight the City Aldermen’s votes is flawed. Instead of counting incarcerated people at their home addresses as required by the state constitution’s definition of residence, the city used data that included the Hudson Correctional Facility as part of the city’s population.

The last Census in 2000 credited 618 incarcerated people to the 3rd Ward in Hudson, giving the actual residents of that district about 35% more clout than they were entitled to, and diluting the votes of residents of the other wards by about as much.

In 2010, the prison population has fallen to about 360, but even relatively small populations can have a large impact on democracy if they are counted in the wrong place. New York’s new law ending prison-based gerrymandering gets a lot of attention for its comparatively small impact on the state senate, but the law’s amendments to the municipal home rule law will ensure that the law is a big advance for democracy upstate.

One Response

  1. Sam Pratt says, 19 hours, 5 minutes after publication:

    A number of us have felt for some time that both the City of Hudson and Columbia County Board of Supervisors methods of vote apportionment are contrary to democratic ideals. (Note that it is increasingly rare for New York counties to have Supervisors at all, with most having switched over to a Legislature form of governance.)

    Indeed, one wonders if weighted voting is democratic at all, even when it is more accurately done.

    The problem is that even when votes are weighted properly when debate comes to a close, people lose representation in the process leading *up* to the vote.

    Okay — so what do I mean by that?

    Though a local or county representative may only have voting power in proportion to the number of residents in their district, there are many other powers and forms of influence vested in those reps which don’t correlate to their weighted votes.

    For example, in a small municipality like Hudson, there are only eleven Aldermen to serve on the Common Council’s many committees and subcommittees. The distribution of Aldermen to these bodies is roughly equal (depending to large extent on their availability to serve), and the Committees operate largely on a consensus or one-rep-one-vote basis. Moreover, most legislation does not reach the full body except through committees.

    So the influence of each representative is not actually weighted in many of the week-to-week operations of a town board, city council or in county government.

    As such, I’ve come to believe that places like Hudson and Columbia would be better off moving to one-rep-one-vote systems, with the districts redrawn periodically. The relative hassle of redistricting (which of course has its own pitfalls) is minor compared to the equity such a switch would deliver, IMHO.

    Thanks for covering this situation.

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