Prison gerrymandering finally solved in McAlester, Okla.

by Aleks Kajstura, March 17, 2015  

I’m happy to report that McAlester, Oklahoma has finally solved the prison gerrymandering problem it stumbled into last decade. It may have taken the City a while, but it’s certainly not for their lack of trying.

The City used to exclude prison populations when redistricting, but a mid-decade charter revision accidentally tied their hands when the 2010 round of redistricting rolled around. The new charter language — based on the model charter published by the National Civic League — pegged McAlester’s redistricting data to population data “according to the most recent Census”, which of course tabulated people incarcerated at the two state correctional facilities in town as if they were actual residents of McAlester. This resulted in the city feeling forced into drawing a district where people incarcerated by the state accounted for nearly 60% of the population. This means that McAlester residents who live in that city council district get more than twice as much representation on the city council as any other city resident.

Last summer McAlester was poised to fix the charter, and those who voted overwhelmingly approved the charter change in August, but that too didn’t last. A legal fault was discovered with the published election notice, and a new vote was needed.

And so we arrive at March of 2015, when the residents of McAlester
voted once again to finally end prison gerrymandering. And that’s great news, for McAlester. But there are many cities that lack McAlester’s persistent pursuit of equal representation. And quite frankly, America’s cities should not be put in a position where they have to question Census data’s suitability for redistricting.

The Census Bureau should count incarcerated people at home, rather than as residents of the location of the prison. This national solution would not only end prison gerrymandering for the rest of the cities still struggling with prison gerrymandering but also help the cities (and states) who already take the time and effort to adjust the Census Bureau’s redistricting data on their own. And as an interim measure, the The National Civic League should amend its model city charter to encourage cities to avoid prison gerrymandering by making their own data adjustments.

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