by Peter Wagner, October 25, 2004

The Census Bureau currently counts college students and prisoners the same way: as residents of the town in which they sleep. This makes sense for students, because they are a part of the surrounding college community, but prisoners have no such ties. The below table from my Actual Constituents: Students and Political Clout in New York report compares how students interact with the surrounding community with how prisoners do not.

Students Prisoners
In college/prison town by choice Yes No
Has control over whether to transfer to another institution Yes No
Can vote Yes In 48 states, No (only in Maine and Vermont)
By Supreme Court precedent, can vote locally Yes No
Encouraged to leave the institution to spend money locally Yes No
Has interactions with surrounding community Yes No
Is welcome to stay in local community upon graduation/release Yes No
Odds of returning to pre-college or pre-prison address after graduation/release Low High

Notes: Actual Constituents: Students and Political Clout in New York explains how state legislative districts are drawn, why they are drawn to contain equal numbers of people, why it makes good sense to include students at their college addresses as a part of legislative districts, and why students should be welcomed at the polls. For more contrasts between students and prisoners, see also the analysis in the Brennan Center’s report: One Size Does Not Fit All: Why the Census Bureau Should Change the Way It Counts Prisoners [PDF]

by Peter Wagner, October 18, 2004

The California county of Santa Barbara is considering splitting itself in two, and the commission charged with drawing Supervisor districts for the proposed new Mission County ran straight in to controversy by including the 3,137 prisoners at the Lompoc federal prison within one district. Each district was supposed to contain about 41,000 residents, so this was a considerable non-resident boost to the population in one particular district.

According to the Santa Barbara News-Press, the two commissioners charged with drafting the districts “initially included the prison population with the reasoning that ‘just because someone is a convicted felon, they are part of the census population and deserve representation’.” This assumption wasn’t popular with the residents for good reason.

“I’d hate to see you use the prison population; that opens up a whole can of worms,’ said Bill Giorgi of Nojoqui Falls Ranch during a public hearing Monday in Solvang. ‘It’s been used for political purposes in the past.'”

The Chair of the Commission, Ted Tedesco supported the residents who wanted the prisoners excluded from the districts: “We really don’t provide them with any services…. I don’t feel comfortable including them.”

These arguments were persuasive. One of the commissioners that presented the original plan, Jack Boyson, told the Santa Maria Times why prisoners were excluded in the final plan resubmitted in October: “Prisoners don’t require county services, they don’t use our roads.”

Excluding the prisoners at the federal prison from the county redistricting was the right thing to do. Jack Boyson was partially right the first time, though. Prisoners do deserve representation in local government, but not in the community that contains the prison.

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by Peter Wagner, October 11, 2004

Are Hispanics in rural New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and other rural places not having children? Or are these the new retirement hotspots for Hispanics? Those are also the wrong questions. The question really should be: Where are the fathers?

By way of background, 25.7% of people of all ethnicities in the U.S. are under the age of 18. This varies from place to place, in part because of where people of certain ages choose to live. For example, many older people move to Florida, so that state has a very low proportion of young people.

Nationally, Hispanics are a much younger population than the total U.S. population, as 35% are under the age of 18. Unfortunately, it is hard to tell whether there are any relevant age-based trends in Latino migration for economic or social reasons because the Census Bureau’s data is overwhelmed by the number of adult Latinos moved to rural counties against their will for purposes of incarceration.

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by Peter Wagner, October 4, 2004

In previous articles, I have called for the U.S. Census to count prisoners at their home addresses rather as residents of the prison town. All states currently rely on the U.S. Census for data for their legislative redistricting, despite the fact that most states define residence for prisoners to be their pre-incarceration address.

From a voting rights perspective that looks at how Census counts of prisoners dilute urban and minority voting strength, changing where the U.S. Census counts prisoners appears to be the only way to give state legislatures the data they need to draw their districts fairly.

In a paper at a Census Bureau symposium in March, Professor Nathaniel Persily suggested another solution. While including prisoners within the prison town is clearly bad for legislative redistricting, there may be other policy purposes where the number of people physically present is most important.

The solution? Change the form given to prisoners, and ask not only for the prison’s address, but for the individual’s pre-incarceration address. The Census Bureau could then package a dataset for redistricting purposes that would use the pre-incarceration address of prisoners. Professor Persily wrote: “In doing so, the Bureau would remain true to its mission as information provider without having to take a stand on exactly where states and localities should place prisoners.”

This compromise would be a marked improvement over the current Census methodology that denies states seeking to draw fair districts an accurate answer to the question: Where does our population reside?

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