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Maine asked to declare prison-based gerrymandering a violation of one person one vote

by Peter Wagner, June 26, 2009

Demos and the Prison Policy Initiative have called on [PDF] the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Education to declare prison-based gerrymandering a violation of the principles of one person one vote.

In January, I released a report, Phantom Constituents in Maine’s Regional School Unit 13: How the Census Bureau’s outdated method of counting prisoners harms democracy, which identified how the town of Thomaston, Maine, is able to use Census counts of a closed prison to exercise undue influence over a school board.

Each town is given a number of votes in proportion to its population, but because the board used Census Bureau counts that included the now-closed Maine State Prison, they unintentionally gave Thomaston more votes than its population was entitled to. (Unlike the Census Bureau, Maine state law says that incarcerated people remain residents of their home, not prison, addresses.)

Earlier, the Commissioner’s office told the board that the impact of the prison was too small to matter, so our letter reviews the relevant legal precedent and the appropriate way to calculate vote dilution. We found that crediting the prison to Thomaston results in inflating the weight of a vote in that town by almost 9%, which is significantly more than the 5% allowed by Supreme Court decisions. When compared against the weight of a vote in the other towns, the distortion is also larger than the maximum deviation allowed by controlling precedents.

Some members of the school board want to reject the flawed census counts and update their voting system without regard to the prison population. If successful, each resident of the school district would have an equal say over the education of their children.

But before proceeding with changes, state law requires the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Education to declare the current voting system in violation of the principles of one person one vote. The Commissioner has not yet responded to our letter. [PDF]

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