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U.S. Department of Justice approves the end of prison-based gerrymandering in New York

by Aleks Kajstura, May 17, 2011

The New York Daily News reports that the law ending prison-based gerrymandering in the state passed the Department of Justice’s review.

The Justice Department’s pre-clearance of the law does not, however, deter the law’s opponents. The Times Union published commentary written by Ekow N. Yankah, an assistant law professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and Leonard Kohen, an election law and voting rights attorney. The writers discussed a lawsuit aimed to return prison-based gerrymandering to New York.

The senators’ lawsuit challenges the law as giving unequal treatment to “different classes” of voters. Further, they argue that because the state Constitution allegedly contains no specific provisions for how to count prisoners in the census, a constitutional amendment was required to enact the law.

They can support their arguments only by distorting the state constitution. First, the constitution, in the very section that they cite in their complaint (Article III, section 4), allows the state to use other information where the federal census data is not precise or adequate for apportioning electoral districts.

Second and most directly, both the constitution and state election law explicitly guarantee that, for voting purposes, no one shall be deemed to have lost his or her residence while confined in prison. Thus, the premise of their lawsuit flatly contravenes the state constitution.

The constitution has always been clear that prisoners remain residents of their pre-incarceration addresses for voting purposes, and for the first time our state redistricting procedures will be in compliance. Indeed, nowhere in the lawsuit do the senators mention that before the enactment of the law that they are challenging, the majority of New York’s counties that have large prisons refused to use the prison populations in drawing their country districts.

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