County Commissioner explains how prison gerrymandering created lopsided districts, unequal voting power in his home state

by Harrison Stark, July 7, 2016  

On June 1, 2015, Jerry Zorsch submitted a comment letter in response to the Census Bureau’s May 20, 2015 Federal Register Notice regarding the 2020 Decennial Census Residence Rule and Residence Situations. Drawing on his experience as County Commissioner of Morgan County, Tennessee, including serving as a chairman of the County’s Redistricting Committee, Zorsch contends that because the Census Bureau “count[s] inmates in a prison in the county as if they were residents of that neighborhood,” counties like Morgan “end[] up with severe malapportionment.” The result is that “[i]t is impossible to count population bloc[s] like that in our county electoral system and still achieve equal representation among the citizens of this county.”

Commissioner Zorsch further explains that the Census Bureau’s residency designation contradicts Tennessee’s residency law. State law defines residence as “where the person’s habitation is fixed and is where, during periods of absence, the person definitely intends to return,” Mr. Zorsch contends, however, that imprisoned persons are not residents of their prison facilities in any meaningful ways:

These [incarcerated] men all come from outside our county. Upon release they immediately leave our county. They are not buying homes, raising families and putting down roots here. They came here, quite simply because they were forced to at gunpoint and they stay here only because of walls, wire and armed guards.

Moreover, Commissioner Zorsch demonstrates how the inclusion of prison populations by the Census Bureau has resulted in drastically unequal voting power for certain areas in Morgan County. Following the 2010 Census, the County’s correctional facility contained 2,400 inmates. Each district was drawn to contain 3,667 people, such that “whichever district [got] the prison block [would] only have 1,267 actual residents in it and 2,400 prisoners.” The result was that “the residents of one of our districts hav[e] 3 times the representation of the residents in the rest of the county.” Commissioner Zorsch explained how the problem got worse. One of two County prison facilities closed and the remaining facility absorbed the entire prison population, resulting in just one census block containing 10% of Morgan County’s population.

Finally, Commissioner Zorsch requests that the Census Bureau “please help us correct this problem and get back to the ‘One Man, One Vote’ ideal” and “help us to achieve fair and equal representation to all the citizens of our county, and those across this great nation by revising the Residence Rule or Residence Situations to count incarcerated people at home in the Census.”

Despite Commissioner Zorsch’s request, the Census Bureau has proposed to maintain the status quo and count incarcerated individuals at their prison facility addresses rather than at their pre-incarceration addresses.

Harrison Stark, a 2L at Yale Law School, is a 2016 summer intern at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.

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