Even small prisons can mean a big problem for democracy
by Peter Wagner, August 17, 2010
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.