Fixing prison-based gerrymandering after the 2010 Census: Iowa

50 State Guide, March 2010

Impact at the local level
Iowa law says a prison cell is not a residence
Pending legislation
Additional resources

Prison-based gerrymandering violates the constitutional principle of "One Person, One Vote." The Supreme Court requires districts to be based on equal population in order to give each resident the same access to government. But a longstanding flaw in the Census counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison location, even though they can’t vote and aren’t a part of the surrounding community.

When legislators claim people incarcerated in their districts are legitimate constituents, they award people who live close to the prison more of a say in government than everybody else.

Impact at the local level:

  • After the 2000 Census, we identified prison-based gerrymandering within the following Iowa counties: Calhoun, Jones, Page, and Webster counties.
    • Jones County had a district that was 33% incarcerated.
    • Page County had a district that was 19% incarcerated.
    • Webster County had a district that was 15% incarcerated.
    • Calhoun County had a district that was 12% incarcerated.
  • Prison-based gerrymandering in Iowa cities after the 2000 Census:
    • The city of Anamosa contained 4 wards, each should have had around 1,400 residents, but everyone incarcerated at the state Prison in the city was counted as a resident of Anamosa as well. The result was that one of the wards had only 58 actual residents in it, these few residents had as much power in local government as nearly 1,400 people in any of the other districts. Anamosa fixed this problem when it reformed its government to get rid of the ward system.
    • The city of Clarinda has a district that is 58% incarcerated.
    • The city of Mount Pleasant has a Ward that is 46% incarcerated. 46% of Ward IV is incarcerated at the Mt. Pleasant Correctioanl Facility.
  • More research needs to be done, especially in the cities of Coralville, and Rockwell City, and in Henry County. (These communities contain large prisons relative to their actual population.) Unless the prison populations were removed from the redistricting base after the last Census, these communities have one or more districts that are significantly padded with non-resident prison populations. See the Democracy Toolkit for a suggested research methodology.

Iowa law says a prison cell is not a residence:

  • "The word “residence” as employed in the election statutes is synonymous with “home” or “domicile,” and means a fixed or permanent abode or habitation to which the party, when absent, intends to return.... There is no absolute criterion by which to determine one's place of residence. Each case must depend on its particular facts or circumstances. Three rules, however, are well established: (1) That a man must have a residence or domicile somewhere; (2) when once established, it remains until a new one is acquired; and (3) a man can have but one domicile at a time.... Ordinarily little difficulty is experienced in determining the residence of a man with a family for it is, save in exceptional cases, where the family live or have their home...." (State v. Savre, 129 Iowa 122, 105 N.W. 387 (Iowa 1905).)


  • Ideally, the U.S. Census Bureau would change where it counts incarcerated people. They should be counted as residents of their home — not prison — addresses. There is no time for that in 2010, but Iowa should ask the Census Bureau for this change for 2020.
  • After the 2010 Census, the state and its local governments should, to the degree possible, count incarcerated people as residents of their home communities for redistricting purposes. Where that is not feasible, incarcerated people should be treated as providing unknown addresses instead of being used to pad the legislative districts that contain prisons.

Additional resources:

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