New Virginia bill to finally free all local governments from prison gerrymandering
by Aleks Kajstura, January 30, 2013
The census’s practice of counting incarcerated people at the location of the facility where they are incarcerated, rather than at their home addresses, continues to test Virginia’s redistricting laws, but the state keeps making progress towards a solution. A new bill to end the state’s requirement that some counties and cities engage in prison gerrymandering, HB 1339, just passed the House and is making its way through the Senate.
Historically, Virginia law required counties and cities to base their legislative districts on unadjusted federal census data, denying local governments in Virginia the flexibility exercised by governments in other states to choose the population base used for redistricting. This caused some counties’ districts to be distorted by the way prison populations are counted in the census, resulting in prison gerrymandering. Over 200 counties and municipalities across the nation avoid prison gerrymandering by adjusting census data to account for the prison populations.
In 2001, Virginia took its first step in amending the law to give counties where incarcerated people make up more than 12% of the census population the option to avoid padding Board of Supervisors districts with prison populations.
Unfortunately, the 2001 law’s escape valve did not apply to enough local governments. For example, Southampton County’s prison population was too small to benefit from the 2001 law, because the county was forced to draw a district that was more than half incarcerated. This gave the residents of the district with the prison more than twice the political influence of the residents of all other districts in the county.
Last year the law was amended yet again to allow more counties and cities to avoid prison gerrymandering. The law now allows any county, city, or town where a single district would be more than 12% incarcerated to exclude prison populations from its redistricting data.
HB 1339, now in the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, proposes to allow any county, city, or town, regardless of size, to exclude populations of correctional facilities for redistricting purposes. Virginia’s long struggle with the Census Bureau’s prisoner miscount underscores the importance of a comprehensive national solution at the Census Bureau by 2020.