by Peter Wagner, November 3, 2006

New York State is considering a number of reforms to its redistricting practices that would transfer control over the process from the legislature to an independent commission. The State Assembly is holding a series of hearings on the issue around the state. At the invitation of Citizen’s Union, Prison Policy Initiative Executive Director Peter Wagner testified at the October 17 hearing held in New York City. His testimony, reprinted below, discusses why relying on the Census Bureau’s count of people in prison as residents of the prison town violates the New York State constitution. His testimony offers three ways that the state could remedy the situation.

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by Peter Wagner, October 20, 2006

The Prison Policy Initiative frequently receives requests from people in rural counties asking for data showing how the Census Bureau’s method of counting people in prisons skews county demographics. Even though prisoners cannot participate in the local community, the Census Bureau nevertheless counts them as residents of the county where they are incarcerated. We have published a number of national maps illustrating the problem and have posted tables showing some of the extreme cases, but we have never made the underlying data available to the public.

Today, the Prison Policy Initiative rolls out a new addition to our groundbreaking April 2004 report, Too big to ignore: How counting people in prisons distorted Census 2000: interactive data tables. The report’s findings include the discovery that 21 counties have at least 21% of their Census population behind bars, and that in 173 counties, more than half of the Black population is incarcerated.

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by New York Times, September 18, 2006

article thumbnail The Census Bureau has stubbornly rebuffed critics who argue that the nation’s prison inmates should be counted at their homes instead of where they are serving time. But a persuasive new report from the National Research Council makes the current method difficult to defend. The Census Bureau commissioned the report, which deals with residency rules in general. In one of its most important findings, the report says that the practice of counting inmates at prisons sometimes distorts the political process and “raises legitimate concerns” about “equity and fairness in the census.”

Prison inmates are stripped of the right to vote in all but two states. But state lawmakers often treat them as “residents” of their prisons when drawing legislative maps, to help underpopulated districts raise their numbers. That shifts political influence from the densely populated urban districts where inmates actually live to the sparsely settled rural areas where prisons are typically built.

The report says that the question of residency should be decided on a case by case basis. It recommends that the Census Bureau gather information on time spent in prison and expected date of release. The bureau could then differentiate between a prisoner serving a lengthy sentence and one who is due to return home within a few years.

Questionable and incomplete state and prison records are a clear obstacle to this fairer system, and the report proposes that the Census Bureau undertake a research program to unravel those problems. It also suggests a sensible interim remedy. The bureau could make it easier for lawmakers to remove inmates from the count altogether, by publishing detailed, block-level counts of prison populations. That would also allow voters to keep watch on redistricting committees that now deliberately draw legislative districts around prisons, thus masking population shortfalls and cheating voters in other parts of the state.

National Academies releases report calling for the Census Bureau to begin collecting the home addresses of incarcerated people.

September 14, 2006

September 14 — The National Research Council of the National Academies today released a report calling for the Census Bureau to begin collecting the home addresses of people in prison and to study whether this alternative address should be used in the Census. The report, authored by leading demographers, statisticians and sociologists, was commissioned by the Census Bureau to reexamine where people should be counted in the Census.

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by Peter Wagner, September 8, 2006

A new website is asking candidates for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and Comptroller in New York for their position on census reform and 5 other critical issues. After this Tuesday’s primary, the website,, will expand to include a number of State Senate and State Assembly races around New York State.

The website provides information about each elected office and provides short answers from the candidates to these 6 questions of importance to the communities that are typically underrepresented at the polls:

  1. What are your views on Election Day registration in New York State?
  2. What are your views on people in prison or on parole voting in New York State?
  3. What are your views on the U.S. Census Bureau’s method of assigning residence to incarcerated people?
  4. What are your views on the Rockefeller Drug Laws?
  5. How should the state or federal government address reentry for people who have completed their sentences and are seeking employment and/or housing?
  6. What are your views on this contract between Verizon/MCI and the New York State Department of Correctional Services?

Better Ballots was launched by the Voter Enfranchisement Project in partnership with the Drop the Rock Coalition, the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice, and the Prison Policy Initiative in order to increase civic participation, especially in communities that are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system.

“I believe that infrequent voters and new voters are more likely to vote when they learn where candidates stand on issues such as Election Day Registration, the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and the exclusive contract between Verizon/MCI and the New York State Department of Correctional Services,” said project director Maggie Williams.

Better Ballots is valuable because it helps voters determine who is running for which positions and learn where the candidates stand on critical issues. Centralizing this information in one place empowers New York voters and makes our democracy more accountable to all communities,” she continued.

by Cole Krawitz and Jay Toole New York Newsday editorial, August 25, 2006

Bad laws and manipulation still keep many people, especially poor and minority, out of the voting booth

As we celebrate the 86-year anniversary of the battle for women’s suffrage and passage of the 19th Amendment tomorrow, the call for a genuine and just democracy remains ever-present in today’s political landscape. The United States has a long history of de jure and de facto disenfranchisement that continues to erode our democracy.

From gerrymandered redistricting and antiquated voting machines, to purging and suppression of voters through state-regulated photo IDs, historically disfranchised communities continue to experience the erosion of their political power, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color.

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by Dana Ford The UnionRecorder Milledgeville GA May 20 2006, June 5, 2006

The U.S. Census does not count prisoners in their counties of residence. It counts them where the jails and prisons are located. For counties like Baldwin, the way prisoners are counted makes a difference.

According to the 2000 census, Baldwin County has a population of 44,700. Once you adjust for the prison population, however, the county has 39,760 residents. Eleven percent of the population Baldwin County reports are people in jails or prisons, which practically speaking, means 11 percent of the Baldwin County population can not vote.

Low voter turnout and registration rates in Baldwin County can be understood, in part, when it is understood that nearly 11 percent of the population are incarcerated, and therefore, denied the right to vote.

As of May 2006, the Baldwin County Board of Registrars reported that the county has 18,005 registered, active voters. Combined with the 2000 population data for Baldwin, just about 40 percent of residents vote. However, if the percentage is calculated with the county population minus the number of people in jails or prisons, 45 percent of Baldwin residents are active voters.

by New York Times, May 20, 2006

Prison inmates are barred from voting in 48 states. Even so, state legislatures typically count the inmates as “residents” to pad state legislative districts that sometimes contain too few residents to be legal under federal voting rights law. This unsavory practice exaggerates the political power of the largely rural districts where prisons are built and diminishes the power of the mainly urban districts where inmates come from and where they inevitably return.

Prison-based gerrymandering has helped Republicans in the northern part of New York maintain a perennial majority in the State Senate and exercise an outsized influence in state affairs. A recent ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has pushed this little-known problem into the public eye and could one day be remembered as the beginning of the end of the practice.

The court held that prison inmates did not have the right to vote, as the plaintiffs were contending. But the court expressed interest in the question of whether counting minority inmates in prison as residents there, instead of in their home districts, unfairly diluted the voting power of minority voters in urban districts. The issue was referred to the lower court for consideration, and this in turn has already led to a broader public discussion of the role that inmates play in the political process.

New York State’s Republican leadership dismissed the court’s ruling out of hand and tried to argue that counting inmates as residents of a prison’s district was legal and no different than counting college students at their dormitories. That’s absurd. Students live in dormitories voluntarily — and can actually vote. Inmates cannot vote, and their home districts lose representation when they are counted elsewhere.

Voters who come to understand how this system cheats them are unlikely to keep rewarding the politicians who support it.

by Sam Roberts New York Times, May 13, 2006

For years, New York Republicans have propped up their slim majority in the State Senate partly by seizing on a quirk in the federal census: counting prisoners as residents of the rural districts where they are incarcerated, rather than of the urban neighborhoods where they last lived.

That way, predominantly Republican rural districts wind up with more seats in the state Legislature, since seats are apportioned on the basis of population.

But last week, a federal appeals court in New York hinted that counting prisoners as upstaters might illegally dilute the voting rights of downstaters.

If that legal argument is pursued and upheld, the political implications could be profound. Republicans now have a four-seat margin in the Senate. A shift in only a few seats could give the Democrats, who already control the Assembly, a majority in the Senate, and with it, enormous power over legislative and Congressional redistricting.

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by New York Times, May 2, 2006

Demographers and voting rights advocates are rightly pressuring the Census Bureau to begin counting the nation’s 1.4 million prison inmates at their home communities — and not as “residents” of the prisons, the current practice. Counting the inmates at prison inflates the prison community’s population and political influence, while draining political clout from the communities where inmates actually live.

Most Americans aren’t aware that prisoners are counted as part of the population in the electoral district where they serve time — even though they often live hundreds of miles away and are barred from voting in all but two states. But recent evidence shows that voters in nonprison communities become outraged when they learn that nonvoting prison populations in adjacent districts are being leveraged against them. When made aware of the scheme, voters typically demand that the inmates be dropped from the district count so as not to skew local legislative authority. But state legislatures inevitably include inmates in the count when drawing state legislative districts, which shifts political power from the places were inmates actually live to the prison districts.

The Census Bureau balked and raised unconvincing excuses recently when Congress asked it to consider a system that would count inmates at home instead of at prison. But the prison census controversy is a potentially explosive issue whose time has clearly come.

The bureau should get busy on a system for counting inmates where they live as opposed to where they do time.

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