Q & A about the petition asking the Maine Department of Education Commissioner to declare Regional School Unit 13’s voting system in violation of the principles of “One Person One Vote”.
by Peter Wagner, last updated on November 19, 2016
- What is “One Person One Vote”?
- The U.S. Supreme Court established the principle of “One Person One Vote” to require government to apportion political power on the basis of population, so that each resident has the same influence over government decisions regardless of where in the community she lives. Many governments fulfill this principle by drawing legislative districts so that each district has the same number of residents. Regional School Unit 13 took a different, but equally valid approach by adopting a weighted voting system where each town’s representatives have a number of votes in proportion to their population.
- What’s the problem?
- Regional School Unit 13 based its apportionment on Census Bureau estimates for 2006 that credited the town of Thomaston with the population of the Maine State Prison that had closed 4 years prior.
The Regional School Unit gave Thomaston credit for 426 people who are neither legal residents of Thomason nor physically located in Thomaston. (The prison is now in Warren.)
- What does Maine law say about where prisoners actually live?
- Maine state law prohibits considering incarcerated people as residents of the prison town: “a person does not gain or lose a residence solely because of the person’s presence or
absence … while kept in any institution at public expense.” 21-A M.R.S. S 112 (2008).
Further, while Maine law allows incarcerated people to vote, they must do so absentee back in their home districts. Even if the prison was still in Thomaston, the prisoners who not be eligible to vote in RSU elections.
- How much does the prison count dilute my right to vote? How much vote dilution is too much?
- Padding Thomaston’s population with 426 prisoners enhances each Thomaston vote by 8.96% over its ideal value. Because votes that should have been allocated to other towns are instead wielded by Thomaston, the number of votes assigned to the other towns are reduced by 1.69% to 3.24%.
The almost 9% deviation in Thomaston is significantly more than the 5% deviation allowed by Supreme Court decisions for a single district, and the combined deviation of 12.2% between Thomaston and the most negatively affected town is also larger than the maximum deviation allowed by controlling Supreme Court precedent.
In sum, using a closed prison to inflate Thomaston’s population allows 9 Thomaston residents the same say as 10 residents of other towns. This gives people outside of Thomaston less of a say over the education of RSU13’s children as those who reside in Thomaston.
- Why a petition?
- Maine state law says that before a weighted voting system can be changed, the Commissioner must first declare the current system in violation of the principles of “One Person One Vote.” The law gives 3 ways that the Commissioner can make the declaration. She can be asked to do so by the school board, she can decide to do so on her own authority, or she received a petition from registered voters.
The RSU 13 board has refused to make this request to the Commissioner, and the Commissioner ignored requests that she do so under her own authority. This petition will, at a minimum, require the Commissioner to respond.
Recognizing the potential for a board to refuse to address a voting rights problem, state law gave another way for citizens to be heard.
- How many signatures do you need?
- Maine state law says that we need the signatures of district voters “equal to at least 10% of the voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election in the district”. We estimate we need about 800 signatures.
- If you get enough signatures, then what?
- Under the law, the Commissioner of Education must then determine whether RSU 13’s weighted voting system violates the principles of “One Person One Vote”. She is not required to decide in our favor, but a valid petition will require that she make a decision on the issue.
- What population counts should the Regional School Unit use?
- Maine law gives Regional School Units the choice of using the federal decennial Census counts or the federal census estimates that are released each July for the previous year. Any population counts that do not include the people incarcerated at the Maine State Prison would be acceptable, including the Census Bureau estimates for July 1, 2007, or estimates for July 1, 2008 which were released in July 2009.
- The Census is almost here, so why shouldn’t we just wait and let this problem resolve itself?
- The next Census in April 2010 can be expected to count the Maine State Prison at its correct location in Warren which is outside of Regional School Unit 13. However, the data from the Census will not be published until March 2011.
Further, this is no guarantee that the weighted voting system will be updated promptly in March 2011. Federal law requires reapportionment at least once a decade but does not specify when in the decade it must take place. Because the weighted voting system was enacted in August 2008, the risk remains that without citizen action, the RSU could continue to base it’s decision on the wrong numbers until August 2018.
Until the Regional School Unit fixes its weighted voting system, the fairness of every decision that the board makes will be in question.
- Where can I learn more?
- See research and news coverage about prison-based gerrymandering in RSU 13 at http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/maine/ The best starting place would be the letter of June 11, 2009 [PDF] from the Prison Policy Initiative and Demos to the Maine Department of Education Commissioner as that letter contains a detailed explanation of how vote dilution should be calculated.
For other questions, please do not hesitate to contact: Josiah Wilson, representing St. George on the RSU 13 Board of Directors, 207-372-6310