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Professor and expert in electoral geography explains why counting incarcerated people at prison sites produces inequitable results during redistricting

by Zack Goldberg, July 11, 2016  

On June 29, 2015, Professor Gerald Webster 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.

As a professor, redistricting consultant for state and local governments, and expert witness in redistricting litigation, Professor Webster is a frequent user of census data. He asserts that counting the imprisoned population at the site of the prison can produce inequitable results in the redistricting process, commonly known as prison gerrymandering. Professor Webster contends that prison gerrymandering is particularly impactful in redistricting at the local level where jurisdictions with smaller total populations and significant imprisoned populations are given inflated voting power compared to those districts without prison populations. Additionally, Professor Webster contends that minority groups – who are disproportionately impacted by incarceration – are likely to have their voting strength diluted in the communities where the imprisoned populations come from as a result of prison gerrymandering.

Professor Webster provides an example of prison gerrymandering in his home state of Wyoming related to state senate districts 3 and 6. “To avoid having two incumbents in the same district, an appendage from district 6 is drawn north for 17 miles to include a prison housing approximately 500 individuals.” Since the ideal population for a Wyoming state senate district is approximately 19,000 individuals, the inclusion of 500 non-voting prisoners at the site of the prison artificially “inflates the value of ballots cast by non-prison voters in district 6 relative” to surrounding districts. A map of the prison gerrymandered districts, created by the Prison Policy Initiative, is available here. According to Professor Webster, this type of gerrymandering is unfair and undemocratic to the voters in the other 29 state senate districts.

Notwithstanding Professor Webster’s concerns, the Census Bureau has proposed to maintain its policy of counting incarcerated individuals as residents of their prison facility addresses rather than of their permanent home addresses.

Zack Goldberg, a 3L at Brooklyn Law School, is a 2016 summer intern at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.

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