“A Rural Fairness Differential?” – Podcast Episode #6

by Peter Wagner, January 20, 2011  

Play

Host: Peter Wagner, Executive Director, Prison Policy Initiative

Guest:
Janice Thompson, Executive Director, Common Cause Oregon

January, 2011

Transcript:

Peter Wagner:

Welcome to issues in prison-based gerrymandering, a podcast about keeping the Census Bureau’s prison count from harming our democracy. The Census Bureau counts people in prison as if they were actual residents of their prison cells, even though most state laws say that people in prison are residents of their homes. When prison counts are used to pad legislative districts, the weight of a vote starts to differ. If you live next to a large prison, your vote is worth more than one cast in a district without prisons. Prison-based gerrymandering distorts state legislative districts and has been known to create county legislative districts that contain more prisoners than voters. On each episode, we’ll talk with different voting rights experts about ways in which state and local governments can change the census and avoid prison-based gerrymandering.

Our guest today is Janice Thompson, the Executive Director of Common Cause Oregon, here to talk with us about her work on prison-based gerrymandering in Oregon and what she calls the rural fairness differential. Janice, thanks for being here today.

Janice Thompson:

Well, thanks for the opportunity. This is an important topic and good to talk about.

Peter Wagner:

Could you introduce yourself to the people listening and reading in on the internet and tell us about yourself and Common Cause and a little bit about your work there in Oregon.

Janice Thompson:

Sure. Common Cause has a slogan that exemplifies what we do: holding power accountable. I have headed the Common Cause office here in Oregon for a little over a year, but before that had ten years working on democracy reform issues heading up a previous organization. I’m coming to this topic in two ways. One is that I got a chance in 2008, 2009 to do a major review of the wide range of opportunities out there to increase voter participation and involvement in the political process. In that context I came to review the range of issues related to prisoners and voting and learned about your organization and this topic of prison-based gerrymandering. The second angle was also work done by, at the time a state representative and now a state senator, Chip Shields, who has been leading this effort in the Oregon legislature. So those two factors merged together and I have been testifying in support of this legislation that was introduced by Mr. Shields.

Peter Wagner:

So you have been working on that for a long time. Can you talk a little bit about how the campaign in Oregon has developed and where the support is coming from? Your progress in Oregon is of interest to a lot of the states that are looking to emulate what Oregon and a few other states have done.

Janice Thompson:

Senator Shields has done good leg work to try and introduce his bills with a range of support and has pulled in support from folks within his district, particularly the Urban League of Portland and the African-American Chamber of Commerce. I have been doing some work trying to increase the profile of this issue in rural Oregon where a lot of the prisons are, with a particular focus on how it plays out with local government redistricting. So it is growing.

Peter Wagner:

Could you talk about that a little bit because I think there is a pretty dramatic example of how prisons affect local redistricting in Eastern Oregon.

Janice Thompson:

Yes. One thing that is important to realize is that redistricting pertains to the congressional districts, the legislative districts, and local governments do it for their city councils and for counties. So a prison in a particular community can have quite a dramatic impact on the local level of redistricting. There is one community in Pendleton where the city council district where the prison is really creating a growing disparity of how residents of that district are being represented in the city council compared to others.

Peter Wagner:

This actually is pretty dramatic in the city of Pendleton because while they haven’t updated their legislative district boundaries in a while, going forward in this current round of redistricting if they use the prison population to draw the city council wards they are going to draw one city council ward that is about 28 percent prisoners. So every three people who live next to the prison are going to have as much say as four people who live in other parts of the city on city affairs. That is a pretty serious impact.

Janice Thompson:

Right, and that is the kind of data that gets people’s attention and it speaks to needing to think more broadly about redistricting than just how it plays out regarding legislative and congressional districts. Well it also provides us an interesting organizing opportunity to legislators in that area who may be resistant to changing how prisoners are addressed in redistricting when they think about it only in terms of legislative and congressional redistricting. But if they hear from folks in their district who are coming at it from a ‘ Geez, we don’t think this is fair in our local community,’ it just opens their eyes a little bit and I think it can help move the issue along, which is good.

Peter Wagner:

I think that is a great strategy Janice and one that worked out really well in Maryland and New York, where people continually said, ‘Look, the biggest impact of prison-based gerrymandering is at the local level, so let’s fix that,’ and some of the people who very early on in New York did most of the work on prison-based gerrymandering were all people in rural communities who saw this massive effect. They did more work early on than the people in New York City did. I think that has to be a key part of why we fix prison-based gerrymandering, because of this impact on local government. Something else interesting that I have noticed in Oregon is the debate about the fairness of individual senate districts. We have seen this in a couple of states, but it is really vivid in Oregon because of some of the unique things in Oregon relating to how rural parts of your state are. We have seen this argument that people oppose reform because they say, ‘ Rural districts are already too big and it takes too long to drive around my district to meet my constituents,’ and the state senators often argue that not padding their districts with prison populations would make that problem worse. Is that a legitimate concern?

Janice Thompson:

It is an issue. It is a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed in a different way. This is not an either/or situation. What is going on here is actually an issue all over the country. There are some states with really big legislative districts that do generally affect the ability of their elected leaders to carry out their official duties. So when you think about it, there are urban districts where it might take thirty minutes to drive from end to end. In rural legislative districts it can easily be thirty miles, sixty miles or one hundred miles between meetings to which an elected official needs to travel to do their job to represent their district. So that is the dynamic that makes this a genuine issue and one that is true in many states.

In Oregon it comes up because we are the tenth largest state in the country in terms of square miles. We have some districts in the Eastern part of Oregon that are about as big as some entire states on the east coast. So not only do legislators in those rural areas have to drive a long way within their districts but they also have a long way to travel to get to the state capitol.

My take on this and how I have testified when this issue has come up in the Oregon legislature is that what we need is a rural fairness differential when providing dollars for legislative office-holder expenses. Even before you add in how the square miles of a district may change if prison gerrymandering is addressed, it does just plain cost more to represent a big district far from the capital compared to small urban districts. That needs to be addressed in the resources given to those office holders in those larger districts. And I call that the rural fairness differential. The need for that is just heightened if indeed the geography of the districts are even larger because of some tweaking of how prisoners are counted in redistricting.

Peter Wagner:

Looking at the research that I have done in Oregon, the most affected House districts are about 5 percent prisoners, so it should have about 5 percent more people. Which could mean that it would be about 5 percent bigger in geography but these districts are so much larger than the urban districts that the prison is almost a drop in the bucket?

Janice Thompson:

Exactly.

Peter Wagner:

So potentially the legislature, when they are deciding the budget for staff things…have you done any research or do you have any thoughts about how they could do this? Are there any states that you know of that do something like this either by formula or by individual negotiations when they are setting staff budgets for legislatures?

Janice Thompson:

Actually Oregon does this already a little bit, but it is primarily linked to distance from the capitol and recognizing that in a large state there are definitely people who are going to have to come farther and can’t go home at night and things like that. So it is already in place a little bit but where it needs to be expanded is addressing the costs to carry out the official duties of an elected official in districts when they are just plain larger.

Peter Wagner:

So the current practice compensates legislatures for the cost of getting to the capitol or for some of those expenses but doesn’t deal with the fact of dealing with their constituents, who are more dispersed. This is interesting because that is what changing the districts is about. It has been interesting to see this argument in a couple of states where people say, ‘ This is current unfairness in the system in that it is more work for me to represent my constituents, so I should cheat when it comes time to draw the districts and use prisoners who aren’t a part of my district as padding to make my job easier. And what I think is really interesting about the proposal that you are putting forth is that it takes this very real problem that exists and it proposes a solution that responds in kind. The problem of counting prisoners in the wrong space and the solution to counting prisoners in the wrong place is to count them in the right place.

Janice Thompson:

Right. So when prisoners are counted from where they came before incarceration, it does mean that an already geographically large district might get bigger. This is a valid concern. It is just a concern that is best addressed by applying a rural fairness differential by supplying money for legislators to carry out their official duties, not by tweaking how the redistricting is done.

Peter Wagner:

That makes a lot of sense because it takes the problem that these legislators address and it comes up with the rural fairness differential, which speaks directly to the problem that these rural legislators have raised.

Janice Thompson:

Right. And it is actually a valid problem. It is a matter of an existing problem that gets highlighted when people begin to talk about how prisoners in a potentially already large rural district could increase the geographic size of that. It is just that there is a better solution that doesn’t involve instituting unfairness. The Supreme Court has been clear that districts need to have an equal number of residents so that a vote cast in one part of the state is the same as a vote cast in another area. So this is a basic fairness issue and it means that prisoners should be counted where they lived before incarceration. It would be good, especially since that idea triggers heightened concern about the costs of these big districts. That idea should be accompanied by providing elected officials in those large rural districts additional resources as a rural fairness differential in the legislative budgeting process to deal with their increased costs of representing those big districts.

Peter Wagner:

So it sounds to me like you have identified a couple ways in which rural people will benefit by ending prison-based gerrymandering. One is this concept that fairness in districting is good for everybody and is good for the purity of our decisions. Two, that it would solve this really dramatic problem in places like Pendleton. Third, that addressing prison-based gerrymandering might help raise the separate question of what is the fairest way to help rural legislators do their duty. It might help put some attention on this issue and it might give them some added momentum at a key time.

Janice Thompson:

Right. The bottom line is that this isn’t an either/or situation. We need fair redistricting that counts prisoners where they are from and address the need for larger office-holder budgets in large rural districts where it does tend to simply cost more for the elected official to carry out their elected duties.

Peter Wagner:

I think that is a really good solution Janice and I am looking forward to hearing some more updates from you about what happens in Pendleton and what happens in the legislature and with some of the other organizing in Oregon. Would you like to come back again soon?

Janice Thompson:

Sure. We will keep you posted and circle back when there is more news.

Peter Wagner:

Thanks Janice.

One Response

  1. Panic over end to prison-based gerrymandering unfounded | Prisoners of the Census says, 10 months, 3 weeks after publication:

    [...] aside the constitutional question about why legislative districts are based on population and not other factors, I wonder which level of government Supervisor Maneely is worried about and if there might be some [...]

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