Phantom Constituents Behind Bars — New York Times editorial

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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