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.

Continue reading →

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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