Counting inmates in council districts skews representation.

by Peter Wagner, April 23, 2010

Mark Bennett writes in the Terre Haute Indiana Tribune Star on April 15: Does counting inmates in council districts skew representation? Policy group says yes.

Bennett explains the One Person One Vote problem created by padding one City Council ward with a large and growing federal prison complex, and interviews the city councilor from that district who says he wouldn’t oppose change.

The final paragraphs of the column:

“If the town wants to give everyone the same influence over city affairs, they need to give everyone in the city the same access to government,” Wagner said.

The city should consider Wagner’s point before drawing those lines….

This column reflects a new stage in a years-long debate in Terre Haute. I wrote letters to the editor in July 2009 and March 2006. With city council redistricting almost upon us, the timing is right for reform.

Activists and the major paper on Maryland's Eastern Shore are hailing the passage of the No Representation Without Population act.

by Peter Wagner, April 23, 2010

I forgot to post this last weekend, but it’s worth sharing now.

On April 17, the Daily-Times on Maryland’s Eastern Shore hailed the passage of Maryland’s new No Representation Without Population Act. A day earlier, the paper interviewed local activists who also cheered the passage of the law.

The “No Representation Without Population Act” requires prisoner populations be counted in their home districts, not where they are incarcerated.

Our work is featured in a new documentary being premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival!

by Peter Wagner, April 21, 2010

screen shots from Gerrymandering film Prison-based gerrymandering is one of the types of gerrymandering discussed in a new documentary premiering next week in New York City.

In February, I traveled with Director Jeff Reichert and Field Producer Susan Bryant to Anamosa Iowa where 96% of a city council district was incarcerated. We meet the City Councilor who won the election with only 2 votes cast, and we discuss why the City changed its form of government to eliminate the prison district.

The film, which will be released nation-wide later this year, is being premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City next week. The film traces the history of manipulating political boundaries to influence elections, starting at the nation’s founding through today’s high-stakes computer-aided mapping battles. Interviews in the film include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gray Davis, and Howard Dean, and two of our colleagues on prison-based gerrymandering, Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York and Justin Levitt of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Don’t take my word for it that the film is good for you. It’s fun, too:

“Surprisingly bi-partisan, this sharp documentary convincingly argues that the shady process of gerrymandering (politicians carving up districts in order to maintain power) makes a mockery of democracy—with confirmation from both sides of the political divide. Somehow, out of all that depressing news comes an exceptionally entertaining film.” —Bilge Ebiri, New York Magazine


  • Tue, Apr 27, 6:00PM
    Village East Cinema 1
    World Premiere!
    Elena Lavarreda and Avi Cummings from the Prison Policy Initiative will be in attendance.
  • Wed, Apr 28, 5:30PM
    Village East Cinema 3
    Peter Wagner and Aleks Kajstura from the Prison Policy Initiative will be in attendance.
  • Fri, Apr 30, 7:00PM
    Clearview Chelsea Cinema 8
  • Sat, May 01, 10:00PM
    Clearview Chelsea Cinema 8

You can order tickets on the Tribeca Film Festival website.

Letters to the editor confront common misunderstandings and explain that Maryland's bill has no impact on federal funding while improving democracy for all.

by Aleks Kajstura, April 21, 2010

After the bill ending prison-based gerrymandering in Maryland passed, debate and misunderstandings continue. Two recent letters to the editor, one in the Washington Post, and one in the Cumberland Times-News, confront common misunderstandings about ending prison-based gerrymandering. The letter from Cindy Boersma, of the ACLU of Maryland, points out that prison-based gerrymandering harms both urban and rural areas: anyone without a prison in their community lose their political power to the few residents who happen to live near prisons.

My letter explains that the bill, now law, applies only to data used for redistricting. This new law has no effect on federal funding formulas. The federal government simply does not distribute funds based on state redistricting data.

Padding city's population with a federal prison distorts city council wards.

by Peter Wagner, April 16, 2010

Sarah Walker shared this great-but-unpublished letter to the editor with us:

Minn. Census prison count comes with downside

Dear Editor,

The Census Bureau is counting the people incarcerated at the FMC
prison as residents of the town [“FMC inmates are Rochester residents, too”] but the article only touched only a serious downside: this population is used to draw city ward districts.

Minnesota doesn’t let prisoners vote, and the state constitution says
that they aren’t residents of Rochester: “no person loses residence …
while confined in any public prison.” (Art VII, Section 2.) Using prison
counts to make the ward with the prison look more populous distorts
the idea of One Person One Vote. It is not fair to grant every 94
residents who live near the prison the same influence as 100 residents of other

The solution? Do what Pine County does and ignore the prison population when drawing local districts. Or support S.F. 3097/H.F. 3536 which would prohibit the state, county and local districts from using prison populations as padding at districting time.

Let’s make the promise of equal representation real.

Sarah Walker
Minnesota Second Chance Coalition
St. Paul
April 3, 2010

NYT Editorial: Maryland struck blow for electoral fairness, requires prisoners be counted at their homes when districts are redrawn after census.

by Peter Wagner, April 14, 2010

The New York Times editorial board has an editorial praising Maryland’s new law requiring that incarcerated people be counted at home for redistricting purposes:

Two great pieces today on about our prison-based gerrymandering work in Maryland and Rhode Island.

by Peter Wagner, April 14, 2010

Two great pieces today on about our prison-based gerrymandering work in Maryland and Rhode Island:

  • Maryland’s Big Step on Prison Census Reform, by Matt Kelley, April 14, 2010
  • The Case of Cranston’s Phantom Prison Constituents, by Te-Ping Chen April 14, 2010

Eric Lotke wrote an outstanding piece today highlighting our recent victory in Maryland and putting it in context of the national effort.

by Elena Lavarreda, April 14, 2010

Eric Lotke wrote an outstanding piece today highlighting our recent victory in Maryland, while managing to locate the issue in the ongoing national struggle to fix the Census miscount. His article was featured on the DailyKos, Huffington Post, Campaign for America’s Future and other outlets.

Lotke’s clear demonstration of the long lasting and damaging effect of prison-based gerrymandering on democracy is profound. When discussing discussing the racial and ethnic impact of the Census miscount, he states:

“These numbers are too high for all kinds of reasons — but the impact on redistricting carves it into the bones of our democracy.”

Despite our victory in Maryland, Lotke is right to point out where the Census has faltered and what states can do to make sure they draw fair and equal districts:

Still, the Census Bureau has stubbornly refused to change its rules and count people in prison in the location that they come from and return to. It has conceded for the 2010 census to release its micro data early enough that states and counties who choose to can reassess prison jurisdictions in time for reapportionment. But Maryland sets a new standard by taking matters into its own hands. Technical matters of implementation will need to be worked out (they have ten years!) but the law states a clear legislative intent. Constituents are not exportable commodities.

The residents of Cranston who don't live next to the state's prison complex have their votes diluted in the city council, charges a new report.

April 13, 2010

Contact: Bruce Reilly, DARE (401) 286-1507
Peter Wagner, PPI (413) 527-0845

Today, Maryland became the first state in the nation to pass a bill adjusting their census data to count prisoners at their home addresses. Bills are also pending, or in process, in seven states other than Rhode Island, where nearly 4,000 people are currently at the state prison in Cranston.

The residents of Cranston who don’t live next to the state’s prison complex have their votes diluted in the city council, charges a new report by Prison Policy Initiative.

Continue reading →

First-in-nation law will improve fairness and accuracy of the Census data used for redistricting.

April 13, 2010

First-in-nation law will improve fairness and accuracy of the Census data used for redistricting

Contact: Peter Wagner, PPI, (413) 527-0845
Tim Rusch, Demos, 212 389-1407
Brenda Wright, Demos, 617 232 5885 ext. 13

April 13, 2010 – Today, Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law a bill ensuring that incarcerated persons will be counted as residents of their home addresses when new state and local legislative districts are drawn in Maryland.

The U.S. Census counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison location. When state and local government bodies use Census counts to draw legislative districts, they unintentionally enhance the weight of a vote cast in districts that contain prisons at the expense of all other districts in the state. Maryland is the first state to pledge to collect the home addresses of incarcerated people and correct the data state-wide.

The new law will help Maryland correct past distortions in representation caused by counting incarcerated persons as residents of prisons, such as the following:

  • 18% of the population currently credited to House of Delegates District 2B (near Hagerstown) is actually incarcerated people from other parts of the state. In effect, by using uncorrected Census data to draw legislative districts, the legislature granted every group of 82 residents in this districts as much political influence as 100 residents of every other district.
  • In Somerset County, a large prison is 64% of the 1st County Commission District, giving each resident in that district 2.7 times as much influence as residents in other districts. Even more troubling is that by including the prison population as “residents” in county districts, the county has been unable to draw an effective majority-African American district and has had no African-American elected to county government, despite settlement of a vote dilution lawsuit in the 1980s.

The problem is national as well. One legislative district in New York includes 7% prisoners; a legislative district in Texas includes 12% prisoners; and 15% of one Montana district are prisoners imported from other parts of the state. Indeed, the 2010 Census will find five times as many people in prison as it did just three decades ago. To address this problem, eight other states have similar bills pending in the current session or being prepared for reintroduction in the next legislative session: Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.

“The Maryland legislature has taken a much-needed step to ensure fairness in redistricting and reflect incarcerated populations in a more accurate way. Maryland’s action should pave the way for other states to end the distortions caused by counting incarcerated persons in the wrong place,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative.

“Maryland’s ‘No Representation without Population’ Act will bring the state’s redistricting practices in line with the rules Maryland uses for determining legal residence of incarcerated persons for other purposes. We applaud this common-sense solution to a growing problem of fairness in representation,” said Brenda Wright, Director of the Democracy Program at Demos.

The legislation, passed as H.B. 496 and S.B.400, applies only to redistricting and would not affect federal funding distributions.

The Prison Policy Initiative and Demos have a national project to end prison-based gerrymandering, seeking to change how the U.S. Census counts incarcerated people and how states and local governments use prison counts when drawing districts. The two groups provided technical assistance to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland and the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland who led this effort.

In addition, Mr. Wagner and Ms. Wright both testified in support of Maryland’s new law at legislative hearings this spring. Their testimony pointed out that HB496/SB400 has precedent in the practice of more than 100 rural counties around the country that currently revise the Census Bureau’s prison counts for internal districting purposes, and in the laws of states such as Kansas that adjust the Census for other purposes.

PPI and Demos long have advocated for the Census Bureau to change its practices so that incarcerated persons would be counted at their home residences on a nationwide basis. While it is too late for that change to be made for the 2010 Census, the Census Bureau’s recent decision to accelerate the release of its prison count data so that states can more readily identify prison populations in the Census will be helpful to states such as Maryland that wish to make their own adjustments.

PPI and Demos applaud the lead sponsors of the legislation, Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk and Senator Catherine Pugh, who deserve special credit for their leadership on this issue. Although both represent legislative districts that contain large prison populations currently counted as part of their districts, both recognized that the issue of fairness and accuracy in statewide redistricting should take precedence over individual concerns. PPI and Demos are also encouraged by the bi-partisan support for the bill including that of Republican Senators J. Lowell Stoltzfus and Donald F. Munson.

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