Blog roundup: Fighting prison gerrymandering in Cranston, RI
by Leah Sakala, February 20, 2014
Yesterday we filed a lawsuit in partnership with Lynette Labinger of Roney & Labinger LLP and our colleagues at Demos and the ACLU Voting Rights project on behalf of the ACLU of RI and residents from the City of Cranston to combat extreme prison gerrymandering in the City Council and School Board districts. Here are a few great blog posts on the case:
ACLU Voting Rights Project Staff Attorney Sean Young cleverly illustrates why Cranston’s insistence on engaging in prison gerrymandering was particularly bad news for local residents:
Imagine that you were treated as three-fourths of a person in every aspect of your daily life. When you want to binge-watch House of Cards on Netflix, you’re only allowed to watch the first three-fourths of the season. When you buy a cup of Starbucks coffee, you get three-fourths of a cup. When you get a paycheck, you’re paid three-fourths of what your coworkers are paid. And when you go into the polling booth to cast your vote, your vote is only counted as three-fourths of a vote.
While the above illustrations are fictional, the last one is a reality for most of the voters in Cranston, Rhode Island. […] when Cranston residents from Wards 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 cast their votes in local elections, their votes are now worth only three-fourths of the same vote cast by someone from Ward 6.
Our long-time friend, colleague, and advisory board member Bruce Reilly also wrote a nice piece, pointing out that Rhode Island lawmakers could do their part by passing legislation to ensure that prison gerrymandering doesn’t skew democracy in the future:
There is a reason that districts should be of similar population size, and its about ten people’s voices being the equivalent of ten people’s voices when making large decisions. Unless those people locked up in the ACI start getting their voice in the discussion, they are being used to puff up the district.
Some states have already passed laws that eliminate this problem. Of course, if Rhode Island did so, the lawsuit would be moot.
Cranston isn’t the only local government that’s dealing with the implications of the Census Bureau’s prison count methodology. Residents in Walpole, Massachusetts, for example, are watching this suit closely to see what happens:
In Walpole, the current town charter, based on the interpretation of the town’s legal counsel, counts prisoners at MCI-Cedar Junction as residents of Precinct 5, giving that precinct more political clout in Town Meeting. A recent report from the Prison Policy Initiative suggests that Town Counsel could use a different interpretation of the charter to stop counting inmates.
If the Cranston suit succeeds, Walpole could face an expensive legal suit if the current practice of counting Cedar Junction prisoners continues. Selectmen should move full speed ahead with changing the charter to address this inequity, or use a different interpretation as suggested by the PPI.
We’ll be posting updates here on the Prisoners of the Census Blog as this case evolves, and you can also find case documents, coverage, and more on our Davidson v. City of Cranston case page. Stay tuned!