Census Bureau Policy Costs Ohio’s Cities Political Power

by Peter Wagner, July 12, 2004

As described in last week’s column, how the Census Bureau counts prisoners undercounts Ohio’s urban areas while boosting the population of the rural areas that host the prisons. Also skewed is how much representation each region receives in the state legislature, because Ohio relies on Census Bureau data to redraw its state legislative boundaries

States are required to redraw their legislative boundaries each decade so that each will contain the same number of people as required by the 14th Amendment’s One Person One Vote principle. Equally sized districts ensure that each resident has an equal access to government regardless of where she or he lives.

The Census counts everyone including people who can’t vote such as prisoners and children. But children are at least a part of the surrounding community and share some common interests with it. Children can with some confidence rely on their neighboring adults to represent their interests. But prison communities are often very closely aligned with the prison industry and are likely to be quite dissimilar to the communities that the prisoners came from.

So while prisoners are barred from voting for or against the legislator that “represents” them while they are incarcerated, Ohio restores a prisoner’s right to vote on the day that he or she is released. But that is also the same day that the former prisoner will be getting on a bus to leave the prison district and return back home.

Including disenfranchised non-resident prisoners as population for purposes of redistricting creates prison districts with substantially fewer constituents than elsewhere. The real residents of the prison district have more access to their legislator than other state residents.

In Ohio, a House district is supposed to contain 114,678 people. But because of how the Census Bureau counts the incarcerated population, the drafters of legislative districts should not assume that everyone is a resident of the place where they are counted. District 85 (in Ross, Pickaway and Fayette counties), currently represented by John Schlichter, is 8.92% prisoners. These disenfranchised prisoners are overwhelmingly from homes outside the district, meaning that the actual population of the district is very small. Every group of 91 residents in District 85 gets as much of a say over state affairs as 100 people in Columbus or Cleveland.

This is precisely the situation the One Person One Vote rule was designed to correct.

Source: Peter Wagner and Rose Heyer Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Ohio

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