Section 4.
Repairing your democracy

In this section, you will find out how to take steps to ensure that everyone in your county is represented equally. On the county level, you can ask your legislators to redistrict to ensure equal representation now, and to make sure that they create fair districts in the future by excluding prisoners. The take action portion of PrisonersoftheCensus.org discusses ways that you and your county can effectively lobby the Census Bureau for a permanent fix on the national level.

Fixing your democracy now

If your county currently includes prison populations in the districts, you should bring this vote dilution to the attention of the county legislature and the public. Your local newspaper should be interested in your analysis, and if they are not interested in covering it, write letters to the editor. (See samples.) In your organizing efforts, you should ask that the legislative districts be immediately redrawn without the prison population.

In our experience, the most effective way to explain vote dilution is to frame the issue in terms of weighting the votes of residents differently. For example, when we have found districts that are 20% prisoners, we explain that each group of 8 residents in the prison district have as much say over county affairs as 10 residents elsewhere in the county. (Our vote dilution calculator can convert your numbers from Section 3 to this ratio for you.)

"Voters who come to understand how this system cheats them are unlikely to keep rewarding the politicians who support it."

Prison-Based Gerrymandering, New York Times editorial, May 20, 2006

Few, if any, people in your county would argue that the prisoners are in fact local residents, so framing your messages as "8 does not equal 10" throws the injustice of using prisoners to pad out legislative districts into sharp relief.

In many counties with large prisons, the legislature draws up maps that include the prison population and no one notices. With one exception, every time a community discovers that prisoners are being used to dilute their votes, their objections cause the legislature to take the prisoners out. (Even that one exception serves as a sharp warning to legislators who wish to treat different parts of their county unequally. In St. Lawrence County, New York, about two thousand citizens signed a petition opposing their legislature's plan to include prisoners in population counts. At the county legislature's request, the county attorney scrutinized the petitions and succeeded in having enough signatures thrown out on technicalities to declare the petition invalid. The legislature went ahead with its districting plan, but many of the incumbents who were responsible for this were defeated in the following county election.)

Preventing vote dilution in 2011-2012

Regardless of whether prisoners are included in or excluded from your districts today, you need to make sure that prisoners are excluded in the future. St. Lawrence County's inclusion of the prisoners in 2002 was so controversial in part because the county had previously excluded the prisoners. The legislature changed course in order to shift the balance of power in the county, so continual vigilance is required to ensure local democracy.

Because of the Census Bureau's method of publishing its Census 2000 data, county legislatures that wished to remove the prison population found it somewhat difficult to do so. The PL94-171 redistricting data did not identify which blocks were correctional facilities, although it was sometimes possible to identify these blocks by process of elimination. The easier way to adjust the data was to use table P37 in Summary File 1 to identify the prisons, but this data is not available until months after the PL94-171 data is released and in a different format. (Worse, the early primary schedule in states like Virginia and Mississippi requires that districting be completed or well under way before Summary File 1 is released.) The Census Bureau could facilitate the removal of prisoners with a simple modification: disclosing the prison populations in the PL94-171 data.

"The state's interest in having such a separate prisoner count should be assessed by the Bureau as part of its worth with state officials to determine the layout of the standard PL 94-171 redistricting data file in 2010."

--National Research Council, Once, Only Once, and in the Right Place:p. 248.

The National Research Council of the National Academies instructed the Census Bureau to find out whether disclosing the prison populations would be helpful, but you should not wait for the Census to come to your county. You should organize your county to reach out to the Census Bureau's Redistricting Data Program right now.

The next Census will take place in April 2010. In March of that year, start asking county legislators whether they plan on excluding the prison populations when drawing the new district lines. Start writing to the local newspaper to bring this question to public attention.

Actual redistricting can start in March of 2011 with the release of the PL94-171 redistricting data. You should get your county to make a public commitment to removing the prison population prior to redistricting.

If your county will not commit to taking prisoners out of the Census data, and if the Census Bureau refuses to disclose the presence of prisoners in the PL94-171 redistricting data, the release of Summary File 1 data in the summer of 2011 will be your first chance to easily identify the prison populations. (The table numbers are likely to change in the 2010 Census, but there is likely to be a table equivalent to Census 2000's Table P37.) As soon as we can, we'll post an updated version of our Correctional Facility Locator or you can access this data directly on the Census Bureau's website.

Finally, when the legislature proposes new district plans, always ask if prison populations are included. Don't forget to tell your neighbors about what you have learned. Redistricting is a complicated process that often takes place quickly and behind closed doors. Democracy works best when citizens are able to participate.