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Tennessee no longer forcing prison gerrymandering on county governments

by Aleks Kajstura, May 2, 2016

Hot on the heels of a federal court decision holding prison gerrymandering unconstitutional in a Florida County, Tennessee has passed a law last week clarifying that its counties may also opt out of the practice.

The new law provides:

When a reapportionment is made, residents of a correctional institution who cannot by law register in the county as voters may be excluded from any consideration of representation.

Most states are silent on the question of how local governments handle prison populations at redistricting time, and over 200 local governments that have significant prison populations choose to avoid prison gerrymandering. (And the larger the prison population, the more likely the county is to correct the problem.) But Tennessee was one of only 3 states that required its local governments to use Census data that counted incarcerated people as if they were residents of the town the prison was located in. (The two remaining states are Minnesota and Wisconsin.)

This is an important first step for ending prison gerrymandering in Tennessee, which features some of the most dramatic and growing prison gerrymandering in the country. The problem really took off in 1992, when the state’s Attorney General interpreted the state constitution to require counties to use federal Census data for redistricting, which counted people incarcerated in the county as if they were county residents. And as the state’s prison population more than doubled over the next two decades, and counties continued to dutifully abide by the ever-more-questionable decision, some county residents had their vote diluted by as much as 88%.

Still, the legislature was silent on ending prison gerrymandering until recently, when Representative Weaver, the bill’s sponsor tried to solve the problem for Trousdale County, declaring that “we need this desperately”: a large new prison was slated to open in Trousdale County, where the projected prison population would have accounted for 3 whole districts on its own.

Tennessee’s counties are now unequivocally free to protect their democracy from the Census Bureau’s prison miscount. Now what about the state’s General Assembly districts? Time is running out for the bills to end prison gerrymandering in the state legislative districts in this session, but I hope to see Tennessee soon finish what it started.

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