McAlester, Okla. still struggling to avoid prison-based gerrymandering

by Peter Wagner, September 19, 2011  

Even though the citizens of McAlester appear to unanimously agree that prison-based gerrymandering is a bad idea, the city is still struggling with the problem. We blogged about McAlester back in April.

Ten years ago, the city excluded the prison population when drawing the city council wards. More than 100 other counties and municipalities with large prisons did the same thing. It’s a common practice in line with common sense. Had the city included the prison population, the population of one district would have been 60% incarcerated. The 1,333 actual residents in that district would have received the same representation as 3,333 people in other parts of the city. In other words, the people who lived farther away from the prison would have had less than half the influence of residents who lived near the prison.

So, if the city solved the problem ten years ago what’s the problem now? Over the last decade, the city rewrote their charter and used language that prohibited the kind of adjustment they used last time. The new language says that districts “shall be equal in population … according to the most recent census” (Emphasis added, Sec 6.04(d)).

But it is clear that the drafters of the new city charter never intended to require the city to engage in prison-based gerrymandering:

Dorothy Crone, who had been a member of the commission that created the new City Charter, said it had not been the members’ intent to have the prison inmate population included when redrawing the ward boundaries.

“I served on the City Charter (Commission) when we made those changes,” she said.

“I think we made a little mistake that needs to be corrected.”

Some city residents have discussed changing the charter, but that discussion may have been short circuited by three apparent misunderstandings:

First, according to an article from April, there was a concern that such a change would affect the city’s federal funding. This is an unwarranted concern. Federal funding is distributed by a series of complex formulas that do not use municipal redistricting data.

Second, discussions about amending the charter in order to clarify the unintended language seem to be based on the assumption that it’s a lengthy process that cannot be completed before redistricting is finished. We are not experts on Oklahoma law, but the plain language of the city’s charter seems to describe a simple procedure that could take effect immediately:

ARTICLE 8. CHANGES TO THE CHARTER

Sec. 8.01. Proposal of Charter Changes.

A proposition to change this Charter may be either in the form of a proposed amendment to a part or parts of the Charter or of a proposed new Charter….

(b) By ordinance of the Council containing the full text of the proposed amendment or new Charter and effective upon adoption….

Third, the Commission appears to be operating under some pessimistic and unfounded assumptions:

[Ward Commission Chairman Evans] McBride said that even if the charter hadn’t required the prison population to be included when redrawing the boundaries, it’s likely that federal and state law would have required it anyway.

Again, we aren’t experts on Oklahoma law, but federal law clearly gives counties and municipalities permission to determine for themselves which populations to include when drawing districts. 10 years ago Greer County excluded the prison population when drawing their County Commission districts, and more Oklahoma counties did so this decade. If there is a state statute that requires municipalities to engage in prison-based gerrymandering, we aren’t aware of it.

Clearly McAlester wants to do the right thing. It would be unfortunate if the city diluted the votes of the majority of its own citizens because of some unintended language in a city charter that can be easily changed.

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