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Prison-based gerrymandering is a problem for all Illinoisans, especially for those in counties near prisons

by Josina Morita, March 15, 2011  

The Census Bureau released the data for Illinois last month, and redistricting for the state and many county governments is underway. Unfortunately, the data has a systematic flaw: the census counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison address, not as residents of their legal home addresses. Our state legislature and county governments must choose between correcting the census or diluting the votes of their own constituents. The practice of miscounting incarcerated persons as “residents” of a prison—which Illinois courts are clear is not a legal residence for redistricting—when drawing legislative districts in order to give extra influence to the districts that contain the prisons is called prison-based gerrymandering. It’s a problem that has until recently gone unnoticed, but can be easily addressed by excluding prisoners from census counts – a perfectly legal solution that many states and local governments have started to do. Illinois should pass HB 94 and join other states that have passed bills to end prison-based gerrymandering and ensure fair representation for all of its residents. In the past year, Maryland, Delaware, and New York have all passed bills outlawing prison-based gerrymandering; similar bills are under consideration in Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, and Oregon as well. Illinois should be the next to outlaw prison-based gerrymandering. House Bill 94 is under consideration in Springfield right now.

Should 49 people have the same voting power as 2,407? That’s the question that advocates of ending prison-based gerrymandering are asking.

Rural Illinois may provide the most striking example yet of prison-based gerrymandering in the entire nation. Lawrence County, Illinois looks likes it’s on the upswing with a 9% population growth rate, three times higher than the growth rate for the entire state. And it looks like it’s becoming a more attractive place to live for African-Americans with a 1,243% increase in African-Americans since 2000. But look a little closer. The Lawrence Correctional Center opened after the last census, holding 2,358 prisoners, over 1,400 of which were African-American. Those prisoners were counted in Lawrence County in the 2010 census, and will be counted there in the current redistricting process, diluting the voting strength of voters everywhere in the state.

Prison-based gerrymandering will dramatically impact Lawrence County’s redistricting. Those counted in the county, including prisoners, will be divided into 7 board districts of 2,407 people each. The district near the prison will only contain 49 people who can actually vote. The people who live next to Lawrence Correctional Center will have almost fifty times the voting power over the county board as other residents. People who live immediately adjacent to prisons shouldn’t have more influence in local government than those who happen to live in the same community but a little further away from the prison.

Last spring, my organization, the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, brought more than 300 people to Springfield to lobby for a bill that would have ended the anti-democratic practice of prison-based gerrymandering. We tried to persuade the state government to put an end to unfair redistricting in 2011 before it even got started. The legislature declined to pass the bill, and unless action is taken soon, democracy will suffer all over Illinois in places just like Lawrence County. Lawrence County isn’t unique, either. Of the 40 state prisons, most are located in rural downstate communities.

When legislators use those prison counts to draw state, county or municipal districts, they – unintentionally or not – give extra influence to the district with the prison at the expense of the residents of other districts throughout the state hat have the required number of people. Illinois law bars prisoners from the polls, but crediting them to the wrong districts results in a systematic shift in political power in Illinois.

The Prison Policy Initiative found that 11 of Illinois’ downstate districts include substantial prison populations, and if redrawn, district boundaries would have to change throughout the state. An even larger impact is seen in 4 rural counties, where the prison populations make up 18-25% of a single district, giving the residents of that district more influence on the county board than their neighbors. Peter Wagner has also remarked on the irony that some of the state legislators who support prison-based gerrymandering represent rural counties and cities that have quietly refused to engage in prison-based gerrymandering. When they draw their own districts, these rural counties and cities reject the idea of basing districts on the Census Bureau’s prison counts. Fundamentally, they protect their residents’ voting rights. Representatives in Springfield must be encouraged to follow the lead of these model counties and cities.

Ending the prison miscount gives communities with prisons a better understanding of what’s happening in their backyards, too. If the prisoners were excluded from the census, it’d be clear that Lawrence County actually lost residents. By looking only at the census numbers, it also looks like Lawrence County gained 1,490 African-American residents – but all of those are prisoners. Excluding prisoners from the census counts and ending prison-based gerrymandering helps all of us figure out what’s really going in our communities.

In 2008, the New York Times chronicled prison-based gerrymandering in the small rural town of Anamosa, Iowa, where residents whose town district contained a state penitentiary had 25 times the voting power in local elections as residents in other districts. The problem in Lawrence County, Illinois could be twice as dramatic as that in Iowa. Should the people who live next to Lawrence Correctional Center have nearly 50 times more say in local government than those who live further away from the prison?

The Illinois legislature should pass House Bill 94 to end to the prison miscount. The legislature should do this because it’s fair. It should pass the bill to protect the democratic principle of one person, one vote. They should pass it for those living in Lawrence County, and throughout the state that have the right to equal and fair representation.

Josina Morita is Executive Coordinator of the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations. Last spring, the United Congress organized more than 300 people to go to Springfield and lobby for legislation that would have ended prison-based gerrymandering in the state. The legislature failed to pass the proposed legislation, but the struggle continues.

2 Responses

  1. Suzanne Davenpot says, 6 days, 14 hours after publication:

    Prison gerrymandering also exploits the prisoners, as felons get no vote at all, not in the local elections where they are imprisoned, or back home where they return. That law needs a change as well.

  2. Kim says, 2 months, 2 weeks after publication:

    Just another example of the Illinois corruption. We live in an extreme corrupted state.

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    Executive Director Peter Wagner, Board Member Amanda Alexander and Advisory Board Member Bruce Reilly will present on a panel entitled “The fight against mass incarceration: Combining litigation and policy work for systemic change” at RebLaw at Yale Law School from 3-4:30pm.

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