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Concern for prisoner-count based skew of democracy dates back to at least 1963

by Peter Wagner, January 5, 2004

The use for legislative redistricting of Census counts of prisoners at the prison rather than at home is of critical importance because the number of incarcerated people is now so high. I’ve previously written that prior to the 1990 Census, prisoners were not explicitly excluded from Census counts because incarceration was much less frequent than it is today. But the concern that it is fundamentally unfair to allow an artificial population to skew an otherwise equal distribution of political power is not a new one.

In 1963 the National Municipal League’s Model State Constitution included a provision for excluding prisoners and similar disenfranchised populations:

Section 4.04 Legislative Districts … In determining the population of each district, inmates of such public or private institutions as prisons or other places of correction, hospitals for the insane and other institutions housing such persons who are disqualified from voting by law shall not be counted….

The National Municipal League was correct to identify this problem back when the nation’s prisons held less than 218,000 prisoners. In the 1960s, it appeared that the total prisoner count was declining, and yet this issue was important enough for the organization to include in its model state constitution. Today, with more than a million additional prisoners taken from their homes and counted elsewhere, the need to prevent a census-based shift in democratic decision making is even greater.

Thanks to Professor James Gardner for sharing this information about the National Municipal League.

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