Three cities say goodbye to both wards and phantom constituents

by Bernadette Rabuy, January 27, 2015  

In this decade, we have seen increasingly more municipalities and counties take the necessary steps to actively avoid prison gerrymandering. While most places avoid prison gerrymandering by adjusting Census Bureau data to draw districts that exclude prison populations, some small cities with large prisons have avoided prison gerrymandering by changing their form of government. For example, the cities of Berlin in New Hampshire and Anamosa and Clarinda in Iowa have moved from electing their representatives from wards (the name for their local government districts) to an at-large election system. By doing so, they addressed two pressing problems at once: unequal representation caused by prison gerrymandering and a lack of candidates for city council positions.

Previously, Anamosa and Clarinda were some of the most dramatic examples of prison gerrymandering in the country. The situation in Anamosa was so acute that the city got national attention in 2008 when there were no candidates for city council, resulting in a city resident being elected to the Anamosa City Council with just two write-in votes (neither of them his). Unfortunately for Anamosa, the state of Iowa is one of a handful of states in which state law requires the use of federal Census data for city redistricting even though the Census Bureau tabulates incarcerated people in a way that is incompatible with other parts of state law. The Census Bureau tabulates incarcerated people as if they were residents of the location of the correctional facility, but that’s at odds with Iowa law that states that a residence is “a fixed or permanent abode or habitation to which the party, when absent, intends to return.” A prison does not fit this definition because incarcerated people do not intend to live at the prison and certainly do not intend to return there “when absent.” The Anamosa City Council felt that the only way to avoid prison gerrymandering was to get rid of its wards.

A few years ago, Clarinda residents, led by Charlie Richardson, also voted to get rid of their ward system when a councilman was forced to resign from the council when he moved to another ward. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but Clarinda was already having a difficult time finding individuals interested in serving on the council. Richardson thought that it was an even worse situation “when you have an experienced council person that would have to resign because of moving” so he started gathering petition signatures, and, in November 2012, the move to at-large elections appeared on the ballot.

Beyond Clarinda’s private struggles recruiting council candidates, the prison in Clarinda clearly skewed voter representation. While each of Clarinda’s three wards had approximately 1,800 residents on paper, the north ward was home to the Clarinda Correctional Facility where approximately 1,000 individuals confined in that facility constituted 50% of the ward’s population. An individual living in the north ward had twice the political clout of people in any other ward.

As Clarinda Mayor Gordon Kokenge told the Clarinda Herald Journal, “It’s just staggering how much the numbers have gone down on eligible voters on that end of town. What this thing really does is it just puts a balance back into it for everybody in the community.” Unsurprisingly, Clarinda residents voted for an at-large system.

The city of Berlin, New Hampshire faced a similar situation in 2011 when it was considering a redistricting plan that would have moved a councilor from ward three — the ward that had the state prison — to another ward. Not only would this have forced the ward three councilor to either resign or run against an existing candidate, but it was also likely that Berlin would have had difficulty filling the newly open spot. Councilor Diana Nelson told the Berlin Daily Sun that transitioning to an at-large election system might be an effective solution to attract qualified candidates from throughout the city. The councilors also realized that an at-large system could be the answer to the problem they were going to face when the new federal prison opened in a year. Counting the federal prison population — which was expected to be 2,000 people — as residents could have led to a prison gerrymandering situation four times as bad as the one that already existed due to the state prison. As Berlin’s mayor told the press, the wards were less essential than they had been in the past. He said the city’s political structure was set up back when Berlin had a much larger population and “was divided into separate ethnic neighborhoods.” Berlin voters agreed and overwhelmingly voted in favor of changing to an at-large system.

In contrast to these three cities, many communities in the country are moving the other way, from at-large systems to districts, because districts are often a better way to elect representatives and protect minority voting rights. But these three cities are all relatively small (with populations under 10,000) and, as Clarinda’s Richardson told the local newspaper, Clarinda is a rural area with no “great concentration of race, nationality, age or economic well being.”1

As we can see from these three cities, there are plenty of ways to avoid prison gerrymandering, including eliminating the prison count from the Census data or even eliminating districts as Berlin, NH and the two cities in Iowa did. And speaking of Iowa, I’ve now got my eye on Mount Pleasant, Iowa, which is currently the worst example of prison gerrymandering in the state. That city has a ward where almost half (42%) of one ward’s “residents” are actually people incarcerated at Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility. Will Mount Pleasant follow in the direction of Clarinda, Anamosa, and Berlin and say goodbye to phantom constituents? Only time will tell.

  1. Further, at-large election systems can be implemented alongside alternative voting systems — such as cumulative voting or limited voting — in order to better provide representation to minority communities with strong preferences. For more information on alternative voting systems, see: http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/justin-levitt-speaks-alternative-voting-systems-and-redistricting-consequences  ↩

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