Wisconsin amendment corrects Census

by Peter Wagner, September 14, 2009

The 23rd decennial Census will again be counting incarcerated people in the wrong place. But if a proposed constitutional amendment in Wisconsin passes, the state’s days of using prison counts to distort districts (and influence elections) will be over.

Currently, one state legislative district is 10% prisoners, giving the residents of that district disproportionate say over state affairs. And because county board and rural city alderman districts are so much smaller, the inclusion of a single state prison in these districts can allow a handful of residents to dominate the county board or city council.

Ideally, the Census Bureau would change where it counts people in prison. But the pace of change has so far been slow, and with time running short before the next Census in April, the number of options are limited. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorialized in 2006:

Congress has asked the Census Bureau to report on how it could change the way it counts inmates, who now number about 1.5 million nationally. The National Academy of Sciences is also doing a study.

Yes, inmates really live in prison, but in no sense are they part of the community in which they are imprisoned. The census must count every U.S. resident, but it needn’t count them this way.

Neither Congress nor the Census Bureau really needs a report here. The bureau should change how it counts inmates, and if it doesn’t, Congress should mandate it.

Unfortunately, the Census Bureau responded with an “obtuse and evasive report” and Congress failed to follow up. The National Academies instructed the Bureau to conduct research on the best way to change how incarcerated people are counted, but there too, the Bureau failed to move forward. By now, the Bureau has squandered too much of the critical planning time to make the change before the next Census in 2010.

Now, the burden to eliminate prison-based gerrymandering is shifting to the states. In Wisconsin, Rep. Frederick Kessler has introduced a constitutional amendment that would require the state and local governments to ignore the prison populations when drawing districts. This approach would not credit incarcerated people back to their homes in Milwaukee and other urban areas, but it would end the practice of crediting them to the rural districts where they count for as much as a tenth of a state legislative district.

Other states are exploring options that would identify where incarcerated people are from and then adjust the federal Census counts to use the home addresses. The Wisconsin amendment [PDF] takes a simpler approach that will address the majority of the problem.

At 10am tomorrow (September 15th), I’ll be in 300 Northeast at the Wisconsin State Capital to testify in support of the Wisconsin Census Correction amendment which would direct state and local governments to omit the Census Bureau’s incarcerated population when drawing legislative districts.

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