WYPR reports on how the people incarcerated at the Eastern Correctional Institute in Maryland's Somerset County are used to skew the democratic process.

by Aleks Kajstura, July 22, 2010

WYPR reports on how the people incarcerated at the Eastern Correctional Institute in Maryland’s Somerset County are used to skew the democratic process in the county and in the state. Although Maryland already passed a law that will require districts to be based on actual, not prison, populations, the districts currently remain as they were drawn many years ago.

No grand plot has been plot has been alleged. But somehow a 33-hundred inmate prison was built in the middle of a five-thousand-person district that was created through a 1986 legal settlement to boost prospects for a black candidate. And it may just be a coincidence that remaining the African-American population in the district is mostly made up of UMES students, who typically don’t vote in county elections, either.

In any case, no local action been taken to correct the imbalance that has allowed the First District seat to be held for 20 years by James Ring, an elderly white man who benefited from a shrunken electorate that musters fewer than 500 total votes.

Maryland was the first state to pass a law to require incarcerated people to be counted at their actual home addresses for redistricting purposes. The WYPR story focuses on the elections that will be held before that change takes place.

by Aleks Kajstura, July 19, 2010

The Buffalo News recently published a brief mention of prison-based gerrymandering, and in response I wrote a letter to the editor explaining that the current efforts to end prison-based gerrymandering in New York would have no impact on federal or state aid to communities with prisons.

The News recently printed a response to my letter from a Buffalo resident, Larry McMahon. The response letter claimed that I “omit[ed] that prisons are likely to be a financial strain on the communities in which they are located.” While I agree that prisons are a strain on their local communities, the solution is for those local governments to require the state cover both direct and indirect expenses of incarceration. When a community suffers because the state is not paying for the full costs of incarceration, the answer is to seek redress in kind from the state, not stuff the ballot box.

The writer claims that “if anybody is guilty of gerrymandering in this circumstance, it’s the Prison Policy Initiative….

Citizens who live in communities that host prisons are just as entitled to fair and equal representation as anybody else. Misrepresenting their actual population —by counting the incarcerated somewhere else and thereby lowering their representation—would limit their ability to be fairly remunerated by the Legislature for the additional services the care of inmates require.”(Emphasis added.)

New York districts are currently “misrepresenting their actual population.” The New York constitution quite clearly states that “no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence… while confined in any public prison.” (New York Constitution, Article II, § 4.) Districts that contain prisons are currently getting more political clout in the legislature than their actual resident population warrants. Using incarcerated people as phantom constituents to pad these districts is “misrepresenting their actual population.”

Colin Asher, Ben Greenberg and Sara Mayeux blog about Delaware's end to prison-based gerrymandering.

by Peter Wagner, July 9, 2010

The exciting news that Delaware has become the second state to pass a law to count incarcerated people at their home addresses for redistricting is generating some great coverage on the blogs. Samples include:

Progressive States Network blogs about Delaware victory on prison-based gerrymandering.

by Peter Wagner, July 8, 2010

Cristina Francisco-McGuire at the Progressive States Network blogs that Delaware becomes 2nd state to end prison-based gerrymandering, citing Prison Policy Initiative and Demos press releases and research.

In September, the Progressive States Network published a detailed article that was a great introduction to prison-based gerrymandering and what states can do: Prisoners of the Census: How the incarcerated are counted distorts our politics.

Becomes Second State To Adopt Reform Ensuring Fairness and Accuracy of Redistricting

July 7, 2010

Becomes Second State To Adopt Reform Ensuring Fairness and Accuracy of Redistricting

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

On June 30, the Delaware Senate passed 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 Delaware. The bill previously passed in the House, and is now awaiting Governor Jack Markell’s signature.

The U.S. Census currently counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison location. When states 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. Delaware is the second state to correct this problem and adjust Census data to count incarcerated persons at their home address, joining Maryland which enacted a bill in April. Similar legislation is pending in New York.

“Delaware’s legislation recognizes that prison-based gerrymandering is a problem of fairness in redistricting. All districts — some far more than others — send people to prison, but only some districts have large prisons. Counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison distorts the principle of one person, one vote, and we applaud the Delaware General Assembly for enacting this common-sense solution,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative.

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The Buffalo News publishes letter to the editor that corrects misunderstanding about funding and benefits of the bill to upstate residents.

by Aleks Kajstura, July 6, 2010

The Buffalo News, covering western upstate New York, recently printed a story that claimed funding was at risk when New York considers counting prisoners at their address of residence for redistricting purposes. I wrote the following letter to the editor which, in addition to correcting the misconception about funding, points out the benefit of the bill to most upstate residents:

Redistricting unjustly records prisoners

“Paterson’s budget agenda is rejected” inaccurately describes the redistricting clause in the budget bill. New York uses unadjusted Census data in the redistricting process. Although the state constitution clearly states that incarceration does not change a person’s residence, the Census uses its own rules and counts prisoners as if they lived in the communities where prisons are located. When this raw data is used for redistricting, prison populations are used to pad the populations of districts that contain prisons. This practice dilutes the vote of those who do not have a prison in their community.

The current redistricting data is used to concentrate power in a select few upstate districts. Those who live upstate and in Western New York, but do not have a massive prison population in their community, have their vote diluted. In the State Senate, for example, the district of Sen. Little (located near Vermont) is padded with 13,000 non-resident prisoners. Every other district has to meet its required population with actual residents.

The status quo harms Buffalo residents. While Little is allowed to claim prisoners as constituents, Buffalo is left to rely on actual residents to meet population requirements. Buffalo residents deserve equal representation in government, and this provision will equalize the playing field.

The article repeats fear-mongering talking points that are blatantly false, but incessantly spread by those who support these prison-based gerrymandering schemes. The redistricting provision included in the bill would have no impact on government aid because federal and state aid is never distributed on the basis of redistricting data. The Buffalo region has nothing to lose, and much to gain from this change.

Aleks Kajstura

Legal Director, Prison Policy Initiative

Newsweek uses our research to highlight prison-based gerrymandering in New York.

by Aleks Kajstura, July 1, 2010

Do Rural Prisons Benefit Locals?,” in the July 1 issue of Newsweek, uses our research to highlight prison-based gerrymandering in New York, putting it in the larger context of economic and demographic shifts in the state.

Although the piece notes that “the New York proposal [to end prison-based gerrymandering], like the new law in Maryland, would affect only legislative redistricting, not state funding for social services,” some politicians are still focused on money rather than democracy.

Predictably, Senator Griffo complains:

“Upstate communities accepted prisons for the economic benefit … but there’s also other impacts, both positive and negative. The fire department, police department, and hospitals all have to respond to the prison and the inmates.”

The Senator is right in part: prisons cost money. The state pays the actual cost of incarceration, although sometimes communities do not recover the indirect costs of hosting a tax-exempt institution. If those communities are not billing the Department of Correction for these services, they should look to recover those costs in-kind, and not by gaming the electoral system.

Elena Lavarreda has prepared an interesting analysis that links our previous research on county and municipal governments to state senate districts.

by Peter Wagner, July 1, 2010

The majority of New York counties that have large prisons do not consider incarcerated people to be residents of their county and refuse to include the prison populations when drawing county legislative districts. In this way, all county residents are given the same access to government regardless of whether they live adjacent to a large prison. However, a handful of counties and two small cities have significant prison-based gerrymandering problems that remain unaddressed.

A bill pending in the New York legislation would end prison-based gerrymandering at the state, municipal and county levels. Elena Lavarreda has prepared an interesting analysis that links our previous research on county and municipal governments to state senate districts.

Elena looked to see which Senators have a notable prison-based gerrymandering problem at the county or municipal level within their senate districts. She found 7 senators could bring real benefits to their voting constituents by barring the practice of prison-based gerrymandering.

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