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Panic over end to prison-based gerrymandering unfounded

by Peter Wagner, December 7, 2011  

Last Friday, New York Judge Eugene Devine dismissed a lawsuit filed by Republican lawmakers that sought a return to prison-based gerrymandering. North Country Public Radio covered the reactions of Senator Little and one local official, giving us a great opportunity to address several myths about ending prison-based gerrymandering in New York State. The radio story reports:

The ruling was also a blow to some local leaders, whose communities rely heavily on inmates to bolster their populations. Howard Maneely is town supervisor of Malone.

“Malone is unique, we’re a small town. We have three state prisons here. About one-third of our population are confined to the three correctional facilities. If we take them away from our count, from our population of Malone, we will have hardly any representation at all. Our district will be so big, we’ll hardly know our legislators anymore.”

Putting aside the constitutional question about why legislative districts are based on population and not other factors, I wonder which level of government Supervisor Maneely is worried about and if there might be some fundamental misunderstandings behind his concerns.

On the level of the state senate, with or without the prison population Malone is a tiny part of Senator Little’s district. The prison is a big employer and a newfound priority for Senator Little, but the town itself isn’t a big player in the district. Of course, if Malone has a town-specific need for Senator Little’s attention, they will need something that Senator Little responds to: votes. And that’s one thing that Malone’s prisons can’t provide.

But there is one place where the fact that Malone’s population is one-third incarcerated might have an immediate effect on the town’s ability to influence policy: the county legislature.

I suspect the Supervisor is worrying that without using the prison as padding, the town of Malone’s clout in the country legislature would plummet. Except, of course, it never had that clout in the first place. Franklin County has always refused to use the prison populations when drawing country districts. North Country Public Radio summarized the County Chairman’s explanation of avoiding prison-based gerrymandering as a “no-brainer.”

Franklin County was one of 13 New York counties that refused to use the prison populations when drawing county districts after the 2000 Census. In neighboring Essex County, the Board of Supervisors put their rationale in the Local Law:

Persons incarcerated in state and federal correctional institutions live in a separate environment, do not participate in the life of Essex County, and do not affect the social and economic character of the towns in which … the correctional facilities where they are incarcerated are located.

The inclusion of these federal and state correctional facility inmates unfairly dilutes the votes or voting weight of persons residing in other towns within Essex County. This is particularly so if the 1,898 inmates in the town of North Elba are included in its population total of 8,661 since those inmates would then represent 21.914% of the town of North Elba’s population.

The Board of Supervisors finds that the population base to be utilized in and by the plan apportioning the Essex County Board of Supervisors should exclude state and federal inmates.

Unfortunately, not all counties avoided prison-based gerrymandering like Supervisor Maneely’s county did. That’s why the law passed last year that ended prison-based gerrymandering also amended the Municipal Home Rule Law to require county and municipal governments to avoid prison-based gerrymandering. Senator Little’s lawsuit attacked that part of the law as well, but fortunately the Judge’s decision last week protects the entire law.

I wonder if Supervisor Maneely’s concern may be motivated in part by a separate misunderstanding. One clue may be the fact that he recently told the New York state redistricting Task Force: “We provide services for [incarcerated people] and those facilities, and we need that count….”

Many people don’t know this – and certain upstate Senators are reluctant to clear up this confusion held by their supporters – but the bill in New York does not apply to funding. The bill changes where incarcerated people are counted for redistricting purposes only. Federal and state funds are distributed by a series of complicated formulas, none of which rely on state or local redistricting data. No state or federal funding based on population will be affected. And any payments that the prison system currently makes for town services provided, ie. water, sewer, etc., are based on the prisons actual usage and are unrelated to the Census counts.

Finally, prison-based gerrymandering is over in New York. People who live in state legislative districts that do not have prisons will no longer have their votes diluted. People who live in counties or municipalities with prisons but not immediately adjacent to the prisons will also no longer have their votes diluted. The establishment of one clear standard for state, county and municipal government will set positive example for other states to follow.

And what lessons should other states draw from New York’s experience? Clear up these confusions about how these laws work and who benefits early and often.