Virginia bill passes committee; would empower more counties to avoid prison-based gerrymandering
by Peter Wagner, February 7, 2011
A bill that will give more counties in Virginia the option to avoid prison-based gerrymandering passed out of committee on Friday. It now goes to the full house.
Historically, Virginia law required counties to base their legislative districts on federal Census data, denying counties the flexibility exercised by counties in other states to choose the population basis of their required redistricting. In 2001, Virginia amended the law, giving counties where incarcerated people make up more than 12% of the Census population the option to draw districts without using the prison populations to pad the population of the district that contains the prisons. Of the 5 counties eligible under the law, 4 (Brunswick, Greensville, Richmond and Sussex) took advantage of it.
Unfortunately, the 2001 law did not give all counties relief. For example, the 2000 Census population of Southampton County was only 8% incarcerated, but when the county was divided in to 7 districts, the majority of one district was incarcerated. This gave the residents of the district with the prison more than twice the influence of the residents of other districts in the county.
Southampton County was not alone in facing this problem. Other counties, including Lee, Lunenburg, Pittsylvania, Powhatan, Prince George, and Wise counties, were all expected to have state-mandated prison-based gerrymandering problems after the 2010 Census.
The Virginia legislature is acting fast to remedy the situation. Rep. Riley E. Ingram (R- Chesterfield, Henrico, Prince George, City of Hopewell) has introduced HB 2073 which would give any county faced with drawing a district that was more than 12% incarcerated the option of choosing to not include the prison populations when drawing the districts. The change in the bill is subtle, but it will more than double the number of rural counties eligible to keep prison populations from distorting their districts.
On Friday, February 4, the bill passed out of committee. Both chambers should be urged to pass this bill into law. Ideally, the Census Bureau or the state would count incarcerated people at their home addresses for state and local redistricting purposes. But time is running out for this redistricting cycle, and the most dramatic examples of prison populations skewing legislative districts exist at the local level. Therefore, Virginia would be well served by passing a bill to give more counties the choice of avoiding prison-based gerrymandering.