Prison-based gerrymandering cited in NYT as an example of need for reform

by Peter Wagner, November 12, 2009

The New York Times is calling for the New York state legislature to turn the process of drawing legislative districts over to an Iowa-style non-partisan independent redistricting commission.

They explain the need:

Of all the tricks that New York’s legislators use to hang on to office, the one that works best — for the politicians, that is — is redistricting. Mapmaking in Albany is a dark art form designed to make absolutely certain that incumbents in the majority party are safe from electoral competition (a k a democracy).

The editorial describes different tricks — used by both Republicans and Democrats — use to control the outcome of elections. One of those tricks is taking advantage of an old flaw in the U.S. Census that counts incarcerated people in the wrong place:

SENATE DISTRICT 45: Each district needs about the same population, give or take 10 percent (about 300,000 for a Senate district and 124,000 for an Assembly district). But partisan mapmakers have always found ways to fiddle with the numbers. The upstate district for Senator Elizabeth Little, a Republican, is a perfect example. Mrs. Little’s district has 299,600 people, but about 13,000 of those are prisoners from 12 prisons in her district. These prisoners do not vote, and they should be counted where they live, which is probably not in her district. But the prisoner scam is one way to keep upstate districts intact and Republican, as the area steadily loses population.

An interactive feature accompanying the editorial has a map of District 45, and of similar gerrymandering in District 34. (Click on the yellow icon in the top left of their map for the annotations.)

For more information about these districts, see an earlier blog post about prison-based gerrymandering in District 34: World’s largest jail skews voting power in controversial New York district, and about Senator Little’s district in A Little common sense: Three fallacies about prisons and New York redistricting. See also Will Doolittle’s 2008 article about District 45 in the Glens Falls Post-Star: Political power of prisons.

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