Prison-based gerrymandering in Arizona could harm Native American political representation
by Leah Sakala, September 16, 2011
When I wrote a blog post earlier this week about Arizona‘s redistricting process, I hadn’t yet come across Steve Muratore’s extensive coverage of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission in his blog The Arizona Eagletarian. After Steve reached out, I quickly added his blog to my feed. I’m glad I did.
The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission recently decided to leave prison populations in their redistricting data, but keep in mind as they draw their maps the electoral consequences of including a large number of non-voting incarcerated people in any given district. The Commission also promised to exclude prison populations from their analysis of minority voting strength under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
But while the Commission may have identified a plan of action, that there are still other factors to consider. At Thursday’s Redistricting Committee public meeting at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, one of the main agenda items was meeting with Tribal Leaders to receive their input and discuss their redistricting concerns. During the public comments portion of the meeting, Jim March of Black Box Voting argued that prison-based gerrymandering has a detrimental effect on Tribal communities’ political representation. As Steve reported in a blog post this morning:
Public testimony of note on Thursday, other than by tribal representatives, included Tucson Libertarian activist Jim March making the case, this time also to the Native Americans in the audience, regarding the prison population issue. He played a PowerPoint presentation and told the audience that unless the method for addressing prisons is changed, it will materially dilute the voice of voters in Arizona’s Tribal communities. March spelled out his concern that a Pinal County superdistrict — covering the I-10 corridor between Phoenix and Tucson — could become a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the private prison industry.
Granted, the demographic data, primarily the number of prisoners currently incarcerated in federal, state and private prison facilities throughout Arizona taken alone might suggest the problem is not necessarily a big deal. But a realistic scenario, considering several likely very real factors might legitimately support March’s fear.
Florence and Eloy, now roughly halfway between Tucson and Phoenix, already have prisons. Gov. Brewer was very recently in Pinal County to promote another prison development project. Local businesses need local residents (who hold jobs) to spend money. A steady stream of government spending for the employees (to house and guard those prisoners) would provide an environment ripe for parochial interests in such a superdistrict (or more than one) with strong incentive to enact laws to promote higher prison populations and additional facilities.
To me, March’s scenario, in present day Arizona, is realistic and not at all dependent on a “conspiracy theory” type mindset.
Although we often stress the numerical vote dilution caused by prison-based gerrymandering, the impact on policy is dramatic. Giving extra political clout to the prison industry hurts every other policy priority Arizona has.