Section 1:
Getting started

This section will help you get all the necessary information on how your county government works. This will determine how to measure the population distortion. Some kinds of local government will not be affected by prisoner miscount.

Step 1. Check to see if this research has already been done for your county.

Before proceeding, check our lists of counties that we know exclude prisoners when redistricting and of where we have already measured the harm done to local democracy.

If your county is included on either of these lists, skip to Section 4: Repairing your democracy, now and in the future.

Step 2: Determine what type of government your county has.

How are the legislators elected? Each member may represent a particular portion of the county, all legislators may represent the entire county, or representation may be some combination of the two. If you don't already know, call your county's main office and ask.

If every member of the legislature represents the entire county (they are elected "at large"), then STOP. Prisoner populations have no effect on your representation.

Examples:

Many counties use the names "legislature", "board of commissioners" and "board of supervisors" in ways that are different than these examples. Instead of matching the name of your local government to this list, match how your local government operates to the descriptions below.

Union County, PA has a three member Board of Commissioners. The entire county elects all three seats. This is an at-large system of government. Counting people in prisons does not affect representation in at-large governments.

St. Lawrence County, NY has a 15-member Board of Legislators. Each resident of the county is allowed to vote for one legislator. This is a legislative form of government.

Ulster County, NY has 33 members distributed among 12 districts. Some residents vote for two legislators, some three, and some four. The districts with four representatives have twice the population as the districts with two representatives, so equal representation is assured. Districts represented by multiple legislators are called multi-member districts.

Orleans County, NY has a 7-member legislature. Four legislators represent districts, and three are elected at large. The three at-large legislators are required to live in different parts of the county, but what matters for this analysis is that the county has 4 legislative districts.

Essex County, NY has a Board of Supervisors. Each town elects one Supervisor to represent that town at the county level. To ensure that towns have political power in proportion to their numbers, each Supervisor's vote on the Board is weighted by the population of the town. This system can have the same representational problems as areas with legislative districts. See Weighted voting in the Appendix for more information.

Other counties have various forms of proportional representation, where there are multiple legislators and no districts. In a "cumulative voting" system, each voter is given more than one vote and may vote for multiple candidates. In a "limited voting" system, voters are given fewer votes than the number of seats currently open. For example, if a county is having elections for 5 county legislators, the voter may be able to vote only for the candidate they support the most. (FairVote has documented multiple types of proportional representation. See Cumulative Voting and Limited Voting.) Proportional representation systems do not dilute minority voting strength like at-large systems, and because they are not based on districts, they are not distorted by prison populations.

Step 3. Determine how many districts your county has.

For later sections, you will need the answers to these questions:
1. Number of legislators: ____
2. Number of districts: ____
3. Number of legislators elected at large: ____
4. Number of legislators representing districts: ____

This manual assumes that you have only one legislator per district. If that is not the case, see Step 4 on how to modify the calculations for multimember districts.

Step 4. Multimember districts.

If each district is represented by only one legislator, skip to the next section. Otherwise, you have multimember districts.

If you have multimember districts, find out how many legislators represent each district. If every district has the same number of legislators, you can skip to the next section and proceed with your analysis as if the districts were single-member districts.

Example: If every district has two members, each is technically a multimember district. For your purposes, though, you can treat the districts like single-member districts, because each district has the same ideal population.

If the districts have different numbers of legislators, you will need the total population of each district. However, because this type of districting can appear counter-intuitive, you should not find it difficult to get the district population for each district. Frequently, this information will be printed on the district maps or will be readily available from county officials.

If you have multi-member districts with differing numbers of legislators per district, fill out this table for use in Section 3.

District Number Number of legislators District population Population per legislator (divide the number of legislators by the district population)
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15

While the number of legislators per district may vary, the numbers in the final column should be about the same. If you divide the county population by the total number of legislators, you can find the average number of people represented by each legislator. Each number in the final column should be within 5% of this "ideal" district size, the acceptable population deviation. For more information, see district population deviations and split prisons.

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