Phantom constituents in the Empire State: How outdated Census Bureau methodology burdens New York counties

By Peter Wagner, Meghan Rudy, Ellie Happel and William Goldberg
July 18, 2007

Executive Summary

The U.S. Census Bureau counts prisoners as residents of the facilities in which they are incarcerated. The Bureau wants state and local government to use its findings, but it ignores the fact that the constitutions of many states, including New York, declare that a prison is not a residence. Crediting thousands of disenfranchised non-residents to the Census blocks with prisons creates serious problems for counties when they attempt to reapportion their local governments. The U.S. Supreme Court requires that districts be redrawn each decade so that each district contains the same number of people and each voter has the same access to government.

New York counties with prisons are faced with a tough choice: adjust the federal Census data to ignore the prison populations, or rely on the Census and draw districts where some citizens are granted extra political clout because they happen to live next to a prison.

Several New York counties painstakingly subtract their prison populations from the Census data so that their legislative districts can be drawn fairly. Franklin County, for example, has always excluded state prisoners from the base figures used to create its legislative districts. Otherwise, two-thirds of one local district would consist of disenfranchised prisoners from other parts of the state. Such a district would dilute the votes of every Franklin County resident who lives outside that area and badly skew representation in the local legislature. Other counties, like neighboring Saint Lawrence County, rely on the federal Census and draw districts where each group of 8 residents in districts with prisons are given as much political clout as 10 residents elsewhere in the county.

This report identifies which counties in New York State avoid diluting their own citizens' votes by excluding prisoners from their redistricting data, and quantifies the democratic distortion in the counties that count prisoners as residents. It is the first report to analyze local governments' response to the inaccurate Census data, county by county, and to measure the dilution of voting power within each county in the state.

The report finds that the majority of New York counties with prisons choose to adjust the Census rather than significantly dilute the votes of some of their citizens at the expense of others. Thirteen counties adjusted the Census to avoid distorting local democracy with large prison populations. Sixteen counties used the prison populations in their redistricting, but in only 5 of them are the prisons large enough that the Census Bureau's methodology has created a significant vote dilution problem.

The report offers short- and long-term recommendations to the problems created for New York counties by the Census Bureau's current method of counting prisoners. It calls upon counties to appeal to the Census Bureau for relief and identifies counties where immediate redistricting should take place to give citizens equal say in government.

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