Terre Haute, Indiana, considers ending prison-based gerrymandering
by Leah Sakala, April 18, 2012
The days of prison-based gerrymandering may soon be over for the city of Terre Haute, Indiana.
The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people in the facilities in which they are confined, rather than at their home addresses. This means that all the people who are locked up in the federal prison within Terre Haute city limits are included in the city’s total Census population counts. Using these census counts for redistricting purposes leads to serious problems for local democracy, unless the data is adjusted to make sure that incarcerated populations — who are not legal residents of the city under Indiana law, and who can neither vote nor participate in the local community — are not used to unfairly pad the district that contains the federal prison.
Because city officials did not adjust the 2000 census data when they redrew the city council districts ten years ago, about 20% of District One was made up of incarcerated people. This means that every four people in District One were given as much say in city government as five people in any other district.
As the city attorney, Chou-il Lee, pointed out in recent news coverage of city redistricting, using unadjusted redistricting data would mean that the people living in District One would have unfair additional political clout, “because there’s fewer of them represented by a full vote on the council.”
Terre Haute’s recent discussions about ending prison-based gerrymandering are especially good news considering the fact that the prison population has nearly doubled in size over the last decade, meaning that including the incarcerated people in the total counts used for redistricting would have an even more dramatic impact on local democracy than it did after 2000. If local officials do not take action to remove the prison population from the redistricting data, about a third of District One will be incarcerated.
And would it be fair for two voters in District One to have the same amount of say in local government as three voters in any other district? Of course not.