Census Data May Be a Big Concern for Georgia County Commissioners

Some Georgia counties and municipalities already ended the practice of prison-based gerrymandering within their own boarders.

by Lauren Marcous, August 16, 2010

As the release date of the 2010 Census data gets closer, the process of redistricting will begin across Georgia. Like many other states, Georgia redistricting officials rely primarily on the accuracy of Census data to draw fair county commission district boundaries. But despite the Census’ goal of counting everyone once, only once, and in the right place in order to ensure equal representation, the data will fail to meet this standard for 81,000 of Georgia’s residents- those who are behind bars.

The Census Bureau counts people who are imprisoned as residents of the place at which the prison is located, not at their residential addresses. Georgia Annotated Code § 21-2-217(3), however, states that involuntary and temporary movement to a new county does not change a person’s residence. Since incarcerated people do not voluntarily or permanently move to correctional facilities, they are not changing residences. Despite this fact, nearly half of Georgia counties with large prisons continue to base districts on the Census Bureau’s faulty method of counting incarcerated people as residents.

When incarcerated people are counted as residents for the purpose of drawing district boundaries, a class of phantom constituents is created because incarcerated individuals are not part of the local community and they do not have the right to vote. These phantom constituents are used to pad some districts, while all other districts need actual residents to meet population requirements. This skews the democratic process by effectively diluting the voting power of everyone in the county who does not have a prison in their district.

In the 2000 Census, for example, 11% of the population counted in Baldwin County was incarcerated in multiple correctional facilities. Most of the facilities were located in Commissioner District 4. Because Baldwin County included the prison population when drawing its district boundaries, it inadvertently created a district in which 37% of the people were incarcerated, giving the actual residents of District 4 substantially more representation than other residents. (Additionally, 17% of Commissioner District 2 is comprised of incarcerated people from the since closed Scott State Prison.)

But Baldwin County is not the only county where the incarcerated population is being used to pad prison districts. Recent research by the Prison Policy Initiative revealed that Butts County, Coffee County, Dodge County, Evans County, Habersham County, Mitchell County, Treutlen County, Washington County, and Wayne County include the prison population for redistricting purposes, as well.

As more counties and cities that host prisons become aware of the effect prison-based gerrymandering has on their democracy, many have chosen to exclude prisoners from the population counts used for redistricting to ensure all of their residents have equal representation in local government. One of those cities is inside Baldwin County. Most of Baldwin County’s prisons are in the city of Milledgeville, in fact, 26% of the city’s Census population is incarcerated. The last time Milledgeville drew city council districts, the city avoided prison-based gerrymandering by excluding the 2000 Census prison population. Because the districts lines were drawn based on the actual resident populations, everyone in Milledgeville has the same voice in City government, regardless of whether they have a prison in their district.

Garden City, as well as Calhoun County, Dooly County, Macon County, Tattnall County, Telfair County, and Wilcox County also use this approach in redistricting. By excluding prison populations when drawing their local governmental boundary lines, these local governments successfully avoided prison-based gerrymandering and ensured equal voting power for all of their residents.

Although it’s too late for the Census Bureau to bring an end to prison-based gerrymandering for the 2010 Census, there is plenty of time for them to change their methodology by the 2020 Census and to start counting incarcerated people at their last known home address, rather than at the correctional facility where they are detained. Until then, places like Baldwin County should follow the leading example of cities like Milledgeville by not including the prison population when drawing districts.

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