Michigan spares most counties and municipalities from prison-based gerrymandering

Michigan law will prevent most prison populations from unintentionally skewing representation in local government, but problems still remain.

by Andrew Stecker and Aleks Kajstura, September 26, 2011

While the states of New York and Maryland are ending prison-based gerrymandering state-wide just now for the first time, over 100 local governments throughout the country have already been avoiding prison-based gerrymandering on their own. Counties and municipalities redistrict their governments every 10 years just like states do, but because of their smaller populations, the Census Bureau’s policy of counting incarcerated people at the location has a greater impact in skewing local democracy.

Anamosa, a small city in Iowa, for example, had a City Council ward where 96% of the “residents” were actually in the State Prison located in one corner of town. In Anamosa, the 58 people who lived next to the prison have as much power on the city council as about 1,370 living elsewhere in town.

In order to avoid such gross misrepresentation, over 100 counties and municipalities adjust their redistricting data to remove large prison populations. This approach allows the counties to base their districts on their actual resident population.

A few states have attempted to aid their local governments in dealing with this problem though state legislation. Colorado requires counties to subtract incarcerated populations before conducting county redistricting. Mississippi state law has been interpreted by the Attorney General to require counties to exclude prison populations as well. Virginia extends this policy only to counties with the most extreme population distortions.

Michigan, however, has come the closest to a full solution for local governments. Michigan statutory requirements for redistricting prevent state prison populations from skewing either county or municipal democracy. The statutes provide that the district population cannot include anyone in a state institution who is not a resident of the city or county for election purposes.

These Michigan laws will prevent most prison populations from being unintentionally used by local governments in redistricting, but problems can still remain. Long after these laws were enacted, for example, a new federal facility was built in Washtenaw County. The statutes do not address federal prisons at all, leaving such counties with the burden of identifying and addressing the problem without the benefit of clear guidelines.

A comprehensive nationwide solution would fill these holes that are currently found in the patchwork of state and county solutions. States such as Michigan have come a long way to preventing prison-based gerrymandering from affecting local redistricting, but ideally, the U.S. Census Bureau would just count incarcerated people as residents of their legal home addresses, and not as residents of the correctional facilities.

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