Massachusetts legislature can still avoid prison-based gerrymandering

by Leah Sakala, October 25, 2011  

Massachusetts residents are headed for ten more years of vote dilution due to prison-based gerrymandering unless swift measures are taken to implement a solution. This morning, the Prison Policy Initiative and Demos submitted testimony to the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting urging them to immediately implement six changes to their redistricting plan that would mitigate the harm of prison-based gerrymandering.

The current redistricting cycle offered the Committee a unique opportunity to use the allowable deviations from ideal district size to compensate for the the way prison-based gerrymandering skews the allocation of political clout. Unfortunately, the Committee missed this opportunity.

But not only has the Committee failed to implement a workable solution, their plan actually makes the problem of prison-based gerrymandering worse. In fact, our analysis found that eight proposed districts only meet minimum population requirements by counting the people incarcerated within those districts as constituents:

In the House, there are 4 districts that meet federal minimum population requirements only by claiming incarcerated people as residents. The 7th Middlesex, 37th Middlesex, 8th Plymouth, and 12th Worcester districts each have actual resident populations that are 5.6% to 7.4% smaller than the average district in the state. Votes cast in these districts that contain prisons will be worth more than those cast elsewhere. In each of these districts, the solution would have been to add additional population so that each is as close to +5% over ideal population size as possible. This “overpopulation” would thus offset to some extent the impact of including the incarcerated population in the district count. Instead, the deviations in these districts range from -5.6% to -7.4%.

We also note that the 4 smallest Senate districts each meet federal minimum population standards only by claiming incarcerated people as constituents. The facilities of MCI Norfolk, Baystate, Pondville and part of Cedar Junction were included in the Norfolk, Bristol & Middlesex district, adding 2,520 incarcerated people as padding to a district that was already 3.4% too small. The First Hampden & Hampshire and Berkshire, the First Hampden & Hampshire, Hampshire, and the Norfolk, Bristol & Middlesex districts were drawn right on the permissible line of having too little population to be districts, but both of these districts use prison populations as padding. Each of those districts has an actual population 5.2-5.4% smaller than the ideal. The Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden district has an actual resident population 5.04% smaller than the ideal.

In our testimony, we outline six specific steps that the Committee could take to completely mitigate the harm of prison-based gerrymandering in six of the eight districts:

Recommendations

Of the 8 districts we identified as problematic, we are able to suggest changes for 4 that do not require splitting VTDs, and two that require splitting a VTD. None of our recommendations causing ripple effects on to other districts. Each of these changes would compensate for the entirety of the vote enhancement caused by the prisons:

In the House:

  • 37th Middlesex: Move Lunenberg B (250272015, Population 2,407) from WORC 03 to 37th Middlesex. This change also unifies all of Lunenberg.
  • 8th Plymouth: Split the Easton 3 precinct in the 11th Plymouth district to transfer 1,458 people from 11th Plymouth to 8th Plymouth. We suggest transferring blocks 250056002023004, 250056002023011, 250056002023007, 250056002023003, 250056002023000, 250056002023002, 250056002022002, 250056002022007, 250056002022003, 250056002023006, 250056002023005, 250056002022008, 250056002022001, 250056002022000, 250056002022011, 250056002022012, 250056002022004, 250056002022013, 250056002022005, and 250056002023001.
  • 7th Middlesex can be improved by expanding the district into Framingham Precinct 7 or Framingham Precinct 15 within 6th Middlesex.

In the Senate:

  • Norfolk, Bristol & Middlesex: Move Wellesley Precinct A (250213615, Population: 3,393) from First Middlesex & Norfolk to Norfolk, Bristol & Middlesex.
  • First Hampden & Hampshire: Move Chicopee Ward 8 Precinct A (250132773, Population: 3,018) from Second Hampden & Hampshire to First Hampden & Hampshire.
  • Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden: Move the town of Russell (Population: 1,775) from Second Hampden & Hampshire to Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden.

It is the Committee’s responsibility to ensure that each vote cast in Massachusetts is weighted equally. This means that, to the extent possible, the Committee must not allow the strength of a Massachusetts resident’s voice in state government to be determined by how close he or she lives to a prison. By enacting the simple solutions outlined above, the Committee would be able to lessen the harmful effects of prison-based gerrymandering in Massachusetts communities.

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