Prison-based gerrymandering costs Maine 8th graders local schooling

by Peter Wagner, February 15, 2011  

The decision last month by Maine’s Regional School Unit 13 to shift 8th graders in the town of St. George from the local school to a regional one is reinvigorating calls for an end to prison-based gerrymandering.

Next year, when 8th graders in the Maine town of St. George find themselves attending the 8th and 9th grade school in Thomaston instead of the local school, they’ll have prison-based gerrymandering to thank. On January 8, Maine’s Regional School Unit 13 decided by a very narrow vote — over the objections of the representatives from St. George — to move the 8th grade. The supporters of the school closure prevailed only because the representatives from Thomaston were able to cast additional votes because the town used to contain a prison.

As Brenda Wright, Aleks Kajstura and I explained in a letter to the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Education in 2009:

“[T]he Regional School Unit 13 apportionment is a system of weighted votes, where each town is given a number of votes in proportion to its population. However, the apportionment was conducted with Census data that did not reflect the actual population. The Regional School Unit based its apportionment on Census Bureau estimates for 2006 that credited the town of Thomaston with the population of the Maine State Prison that had closed 4 years prior.

As argued in Phantom Constituents in Maine’s Regional School Unit 13: How the Census Bureau’s Outdated Method of Counting Prisoners Harms Democracy, basing the weighted voting system on Census counts of prisoners at the now-closed Maine State Prison in Thomaston gives the actual residents of Thomaston an enhanced say over school board affairs.

By padding Thomaston’s actual resident population with the non-resident prison population, the current weighted voting system gives every group of 10 residents of Thomaston the same power over school district decisions as each group of 11 residents in the other towns.

With the RSU 13 board unwilling to request the Commissioner for permission to reapportion with corrected Census numbers, and the Commissioner refusing to make that determination on her own authority, board member Josiah Wilson has been collecting signatures as part of a petition campaign urging the Commissioner to order an new apportionment.

“The recent board decision to move the 8th graders is detrimental for my town and its school,” said board member Josiah Wilson. “But the fact that the prison counts influenced the outcome is making it easier to get voters all over the RSU 13 to sign the petition.”

Unlike the complicated redistricting process, the weighted voting formula required by Maine law is extremely straight forward. In the past, I helped Josiah Wilson calculate the votes for each town based on newer Census numbers that did not include the prison; and when the Census data for Maine are released, we’ll be able to calculate this within minutes.

The delay on ending prison-based gerrymandering in Maine is unfortunate, and I hope that via either Josiah Wilson’s petition or the pending appointment of a new Commissioner of Education, it ends soon. The prison has been gone for a long time. So too should prison-based gerrymandering.

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