Prison-based gerrymandering on the campaign trail
by Leah Sakala, September 13, 2012
Everyone seems to have elections on the brain as November 6th grows nearer, and the candidates are jetting around the country on the campaign trail trying hard to address the issues that concern the American people. But one electoral issue has been conspicuously absent from the candidates’ discourse: prison-based gerrymandering.
Because prison-based gerrymandering is a systemic problem that stems from a combination of antiquated Census Bureau policy and the rise of mass incarceration, the harmful effects can be found throughout the country. And although many struggles with prison-based gerrymandering don’t gain public attention, the candidates’ campaign stops reflect a wide range of approaches that state and local governments use to address the issue. The contrast between two recent presidential campaign stops — the cities of Hobbs, New Mexico and Golden, Colorado— highlight the critical role that state legislation plays in fixing the problem.
Mitt Romney recently stopped in Hobbs, New Mexico, where city officials redrew the six City Commission districts last year in order to balance the population in each districts. But although the district populations looked even upon local officials’ careful analysis, every four District 5 voters ended up with as much political clout as a group of five voters in every other district. Why? Because the districts are based on unadjusted Census Bureau data, which included the more than 1,000 people confined in the Lea County Correctional Facility located in District 5.
In Golden, Colorado, on the other hand, where President Obama made a campaign stop earlier today, the presence of a large correctional facility doesn’t compromise any resident’s access to local government. This is because the city proactively excluded the incarcerated population from the data they used to redistrict. If they had not, every group of three residents that live near the prison would have had as much political clout as a group of four residents in any other district.
While both Hobbs and Golden were technically and legally able to fix the problem of prison-based gerrymandering, Golden had one major benefit that Hobbs did not: state legislation that sends a clear message that the problem must be addressed. Colorado law requires counties to draw fair districts by excluding the prison populations and basing their population adjustments on the actual county residents. With this strong precedent from the state legislature, Colorado cities that contain large prisons have followed suit.
So, one thing that the people of the United State need to consider as we follow the candidates around the county is: how are prison populations impacting our right to equal access to government? There’s a growing number of states that are taking a stand by passing legislation to abolish prison-based gerrymandering in both state and local governments. How many more states will step up the plate and join that trend during the next presidential term?