How Massachusetts can avoid prison-based gerrymandering – video
by Peter Wagner, July 11, 2011
We’ve released a new video to support the campaign to end prison-based gerrymandering in Massachusetts:
How Massachusetts can avoid prison-based gerrymandering
Every decade after the Census, states redraw their legislative districts in order to grant equal representation to equal numbers of people. Unfortunately, states rely on census counts that have a serious flaw.
The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people at the location of the correctional facility instead of at their residential address. The problem is, that when states use these Census counts to redraw their legislative districts, they end up diluting the votes of everyone who does not live next to a prison.
When districts were drawn in Massachusetts after the 2000 Census, each State House district was required to contain about 39,682 people The U.S. Supreme Court has required that districts be within 5% of the ideal district size, so some districts in Massachusetts could be up to 5% lighter, and some could be up to 5% heavier.
In terms of population, the heaviest district was the 12th Hampden District, with 41,642 people. This district was just inside the maximum population limit. In reality, this district likely exceeded the maximum population size, because it contains Springfield, a city with one of the highest incarceration rates in the state. Because a large number of incarcerated people are legal residents of this district and counted elsewhere, the actual population surely fell outside the maximum population limit.
But the bigger problem was on the other end of the scale. One of the lightest districts in terms of population was the 3rd Suffolk. It just barely had enough population to meet the minimum population requirements. But that district met the minimum only by claiming more than 1,500 people incarcerated at the Suffolk County House of Corrections as residents of that district. Most of those people are actually residents of other districts. So the actual population of this district was much smaller, putting it outside the range allowed by federal law. By drawing the district too light and then padding it with the jail population, the legislature gave every 92 residents the same political influence as 100 people everywhere else. Enhancing the weight of votes cast in this district, diluted the votes of everybody who does not live next to a large prison.
Some states have been proactive in addressing the problem of prison-based gerrymandering, For instance, Maryland and New York have passed legislation to count incarcerated people at their home addresses for purpose of redistricting. That’s not an option for Massachusetts in 2011, but Massachusetts can do the next best thing: The state can take the prison populations in to account when drawing districts. For starters, in the communities that disproportionately send more people to prison, the legislature should try to draw districts “light”, knowing that those districts should have been credited with additional population. And, more importantly, the state should look carefully at the size of the prisons when drawing districts that contain them. When drawing districts that contain prisons, the state should take care to draw the districts at the heavy end of the allowable range, so that the actual population of the district will be closer to the target size.
Massachusetts can minimize the effects of prison-based gerrymandering by using the permissible population deviations to eliminate the inequities created by the Census Bureau counting incarcerated people in the wrong place.