by Peter Wagner, April 18, 2005
In previous articles, I’ve explained how the two states that currently allow prisoners to vote, Maine and Vermont, require prisoners to vote via absentee ballot back home. Prisoners are not allowed to vote in local elections because they are considered residents of their home communities, not the prison towns.
But this rule applies in other states as well. In contrast to people in state prison for felonies, most states allow jail inmates (generally those awaiting trial or serving a short misdemeanor sentences) to vote. A voting rights pamphlet [PDF] issued by the Pennsylvania Secretary of State and distributed to incarcerated people shows how that state interprets its own residence rules for incarcerated people.
The rules state that a prison cannot be used as a voting address, and that the person should vote using either their last registered address or register at their last pre-incarceration address. But the rules also contain a common sense provision that keep the rule fair and accurate: prisoners may also establish a new residence outside of the correctional facility, “for example, if the inmate’s spouse establishes a new residence in which the inmates intends to reside upon his/her release from confinement.”
Pennsylvania, like most states, defines residence and structures its democracy around the idea that people are residents of the part of the state they choose to be in. Incarceration does not qualify as a residence because it is involuntary. That makes sense, but this carefully constructed concept breaks down when the state relies on federal census data to draw its legislative districts because prisoners and prisons are unevenly distributed in the state. Forty percent of the state’s prisoners are from urban Philadelphia, and all are incarcerated outside of the city in often very remote locations.
In order to comply with their own rules on residence, states like Pennsylvania need the Census Bureau to change how they count incarcerated people. While it may have made sense to count prisoners as residents of the facility during the first census in 1790, both high incarceration and modern uses of the census for redistricting require a new approach.
Thanks to Jon E. Yount from bringing this pamphlet and its coverage in the February 2005 issue of Graterfriends, published by the Pennsylvania Prison Society to my attention.