Prisoners in the Census skew county government in Tennessee

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Peter Wagner

(413) 527-0845

February 21 - The federal Census counts state and federal prisoners as part of the local population, and that creates big problems for county government, charges a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative. The report explains that the Census Bureau wants Tennessee county governments to use its data but counts prisoners as residents of the prison location, which violates Tennessee state law. Counting prisoners as residents, despite the fact that they can’t vote or participate in the communities where they are incarcerated, leads to unequal distributions of political power.

“This Census glitch creates big problems for counties,” says report lead author Peter Wagner, the Executive Director of the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative. “When counties rely on flawed Census data, they end up diluting the votes of all their residents who don’t live near a prison.”

The report, Phantom Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Tennessee’s Boards of County Commissioners, identifies 10 Tennessee counties in which the use of flawed Census data to draw county commissioner districts has created substantial inequities in political power within the counties.

In Lake County, for example, 88% of the population in County Commissioner District 1 is not local residents but prisoners counted at the Northwest Correctional Complex. This gives every group of 3 residents in District 1 as much say over county affairs as 25 residents in other districts. Similarly, District 2 of Wayne County, where South Central Correctional Facility and Wayne County Boot Camp are located, is 79% prisoners. Four counties in Tennessee — Hardeman, Lake, Lauderdale, and Wayne — contain districts that are at least 50% prisoners. Four additional counties — Bledsoe, Hickman, Johnson and Morgan — have districts that are between 33% and 50% prisoners. Fifteen percent of one district in Davidson County, and 10% of one district in Tipton County are prisoners.

“How the Census counts people in prison is a rarely-noticed problem,” said Wagner, “but it’s important that the public know how the Census is diluting their votes.” The authors are optimistic that change is possible, suggesting several reforms, including the Census Bureau reforming its methodology or individual counties adjusting Census data before redistricting. The next Census will take place in 2010, and redistricting shortly thereafter. “If Tennessee and other states facing this problem don’t fix it now, they’ll have to wait until 2020 to draw fair districts,” says Wagner.

The report, Phantom Constituents in Tennessee’s Boards of County Commissioners, is available at http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/tncounties.

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