Mansfield, Ohio succumbs to prison-based gerrymandering

by Aleks Kajstura, September 22, 2011  

Earlier this summer we reported that Mansfield, Ohio was considering avoiding prison-based gerrymandering by excluding the population of two state prisons from the city’s redistricting data.

On Tuesday, the City approved maps that included about 5000 people incarcerated at the Richland and Mansfield Correctional Institutions as if they were residents of the City’s 5th Ward. At-Large Councilman Doug Versaw explained why this was a bad idea:

“They [the prisoners] are not citizens of Mansfield. They cannot vote. They have nothing to do with city council at all, in that we don’t represent them,” he said. “All of the wards in the City of Mansfield now have 8,000 people (with potential voting rights) — except for Ward 5, which has 3,000. To me, that gives those people in Ward 5 ‘superrepresentation,’ which I don’t think is fair.”

This “superrepresenation” amounts to giving actual residents of Ward 5 twice as much political power as any other Mansfield resident.

Why, then, did prison-based gerrymandering prevail in Mansfield? The City Council was afraid that drawing fair districts would somehow hurt their federal or state funding.

The impact of population totals on funding is an unfortunate but common and recurring theme in local redistricting discussions. This often sets up a false choice between electoral fairness and funding. This misunderstanding might come from the fact that the Census Bureau encourages participation by highlighting that many funding formulas are in part based on census data. However, no federal or state funding formula relies on redistricting data. Furthermore, most funding formulas are complex in order to specifically target the actual population in need – for example, school funding is often based on the actual number of students or school-aged children. Prison populations simply do not factor into such well-tailored calculations.

Under state law, prison populations are not even included in the official census population counts used to determine whether a municipality classified as a “village” should be upgraded to a “city” classification. When the Ohio Secretary of State certified Grafton’s population to classify it as a village, he excluded the prison population from his calculations. This practice is consistent with the definition of residence under Ohio law.

It is unfortunate that misunderstandings about funding formulas can have such a devastating impact on the ability of Mansfield residents to have equal say in city government. Having a prison in your town should not deny you access to the principle of “one person, one vote.”

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