The end of prison-based gerrymandering in New York will finally mean equal representation for the residents Hudson, NY.

by Aleks Kajstura, August 13, 2010

When New York passed a law ending prison-based gerrymandering, the residents of Hudson, NY are among those who will now have the representation in their city government based on the principle of “one person, one vote.”

Hudson, which about 6,500 people call home, uses weighted voting on its city council. This means that each Alderman elected to the council get a number of votes proportional the number of people she represents.

The city is divided into 5 wards, each ward elects 2 Aldermen to the council to represent its residents. Ward 3, however, contains the Hudson Correctional Facility. As a result, the two Aldermen from Ward 3 have more voting power on the council than their actual number of constituents warrants. With this new change in the law, every resident of Hudson will get equal representation in government.

The region’s paper, The Register Star, has a great piece by Lindsay Suchow focusing on how the state-wide law will bring equal representation to Hudson.

“It will put more equal weight on the wards — I think it’s a good move,” [Alderwoman Ellen Thurston, D-Third Ward] said. “When the new census figures are in, we’re going to need to refigure the wards anyway. ”

Two recent letters to the editor break down the false dichotomy of downstate versus upstate.

by Aleks Kajstura, August 12, 2010

Two recent letters to the editor break down the false dichotomy of downstate versus upstate. While most media coverage has focused on how the new bill affects districting in the downstate region, benefits to upstate residents have remained overlooked. This bill does not benefit downstate residents to the detriment of those who live further north, rather, it contains provisions that benefit all of the state’s residents.


  • Prisoner count will mean fairer districting

    The bill — which does not apply to federal or state funding — requires state, county and municipal districts be drawn based on home addresses. This is a big win for every resident of Elmira who doesn’t live next to the Elmira Correctional Facility in the 3rd City Council District. Padding that district with 1,845 prisoners gives the residents of that district twice the influence over the rest of the city.

    The new law will require that the City of Elmira draw its city council districts of actual population. The only prisoners who will be included in the city’s districts will be those who are from Elmira (and thus are still the city’s legal residents). Elmira’s residents will now benefit from the equality in the city council; this benefit more than outweighs the smaller impact on state Senate districts.

    Chemung County’s legislative districts will remain unaffected because the county has historically ignored the Elmira Correctional Facility when drawing the county districts. In doing so, Chemung has drawn districts that complied with the state constitution’s definition of residence. Starting next year, the districts of the state Senate, the state Assembly, and the City of Elmira will be drawn the same way.

  • Seward’s opposition to prison-based gerrymandering law misplaced

    Spreading fear about the impact of ending prison-based gerrymandering on Senator Seward’s district distracts from the real benefits to upstate New York. The City of Hudson will no longer be allowed to grant the 3rd Ward extra representation because it contains a prison. Had this bill existed 10 years ago, Greene County would have been sparred a long public debate about whether the County Legislature should base its county districts on the prison populations or whether it should conduct its own adjustments.

    The County ultimately did the right thing and rejected the Census Bureau’s prison counts. I can only hope that if Senator Seward proceeds with his lawsuit against the new law, he doesn’t also sue Greene County for leading the way.

Saturday's New York Times has an unfortunately partisan take on the end of prison-based gerrymandering that misses the largest benefits of the new law.

by Peter Wagner, August 11, 2010

Saturday’s New York Times has an unfortunately partisan take on the end of prison-based gerrymandering in New York. The article doesn’t mention the benefits to upstate New York from the bill’s passage, and it sets up the facts in a way that inaccurately portray a huge win solely to metro New York. To me, the biggest winners on Tuesday are the residents of Rome New York and other upstate residents. In Rome, the bill means that no longer will voters see the residents of one city councilor district have twice as much influence as others just because their district contains a large prison.

Other upstate cities and counties will also benefit from the new protections against prison-based gerrymandering. Indeed, 13 NY counties already removed prison populations from the redistricting base for local redistricting even before this reform passed; their actions are now protected by state law instead of being subject to potential legal challenge.

At the state level, the benefits are probably more modest than the New York Times presented. There are many types of gerrymandering in New York State. The legislature eliminated one of them. That’s a huge win, but it’s not in itself going to change everything.

While the impact on local government is larger than at the state level, counting many people concentrated at the wrong address has a larger impact than counting them correctly at the many addresses where they actually live. As the Times Herald Record in Orange County New York editorialized on Sunday: “This will have a scattered effect in the city where a few thousand here or there will be added to several districts.”

The New York Times made the numbers sound more dramatic by including Republican-leaning suburbs in its definition of the larger New York City region; but the basic reality is the impact on New York City’s districts likely will be less than the impact on fairness now achieved for local upstate city council and county districts. What will be large is the impact on the handful of local districts upstate that have extremely large prisons. Those local districts will no longer be significantly padded with prisoners, and the winners will be the residents of all other city or county districts in upstate areas that do not contain a prison.

Continue reading →

by Aleks Kajstura, August 9, 2010

Ending prison-based gerrymandering means a return to the concept that representatives should represent those actually part of their communities:

Efforts to draw fair districts in New York State go beyond ending prison-based gerrymandering:

Making sure that those who area allowed to vote know that they can:

And a Pennsylvania paper proposes that the state should follow New York’s example and aim for a standard of “one person, one vote”:

Brenda Wright, of Demos writes that Sen. Griffo ignores prison-based gerrymandering problems in his own backyard while criticizing state-wide reform.

by Aleks Kajstura, August 9, 2010

Brenda Wright, of Demos, writes that Senator Griffo ignores prison-based gerrymandering problems in his own backyard while criticizing state-wide reform.

Response to ‘Griffo Criticizes Phantom Population Law’

To the editor,

Senator Griffo is ignoring a large elephant in the living room when he complains about the legislation recently passed in New York to count incarcerated persons as residents of their home community rather than as residents of the prison town. Although he casts the issue as pitting upstate against downstate [“Griffo Criticizes Phantom Population Law”], the elephant in the room is the huge distortion in the City of Rome itself caused by counting prison population as residents of the city. By pretending that incarcerated persons are really citizens of Rome, the City has created a true phantom district: almost half of the entire population in Ward 2 in Rome consists of incarcerated people who can’t vote. This means that an actual Rome voter living anywhere except Ward 2 has only half the representation in city government as a voter who happens to live next to the prison in Ward 2. It’s not an issue of upstate vs. downstate; it’s about correcting a distorted system that doesn’t benefit anyone except the few people living in the same district as a prison.

The New York Constitution says that a prison is not a residence for purposes of voting. The new law just brings New York’s redistricting practices in line with the state Constitution and common sense.


Brenda Wright
Brighton, MA
Brenda Wright is Director of the Democracy Program at Demos, a non-profit, non-partisan research and advocacy center.

The 2010 Census counted more than 34,000 Alabama residents in the wrong place because the Census Bureau treats prisons as if they are residential homes.

by Lauren Marcous, August 9, 2010

Counties across Alabama eagerly await the release of the 2010 Census data, so they can begin the process of redrawing their County Commission district boundaries. Though this may sound like ‘business as usual,’ some county commissioners may be in for an unfortunate surprise.

In the 2010 Census, more than 34,000 Alabama residents were counted in the wrong place because the Census Bureau treats prisons as if they are residential homes. However, the Code of Alabama § 17-3-32 says that a prison cell is not a residence and in order to change one’s residency status, a person must voluntarily remain absent from their previous domicile with intent to claim a new one. Most people who are in prison are serving short sentences averaging less than 3 years, after which they return to their community of origin. Clearly, most incarcerated people have no intention of maintaining a new residence at the correctional facility where they are temporarily placed. Despite these facts, several counties failed to notice the discrepancy between Alabama law and the Census Bureau’s methodology and based their districts on prison counts.

Counting the incarcerated population as residents of the prison district is problematic because they are barred from voting and are not part of the local community. They are not actual constituents of the Commissioner who represents the district; rather, they are phantom constituents who serve only to inflate the population count. Since the incarcerated people are not truly residents, using them to pad the district gives more voting power to the real residents, while diluting the voting power of residents in other districts without prisons.

For example, in Bibb County the prison population from Bibb Correctional Facility was included as part of a commission district population. As a result, 21% of the 5th district is incarcerated. In terms of voting power, every 79 residents in District 5 have as much political power as 100 residents in other non-prison districts. Other counties, including Talladega County and Coosa County, use the prison population to pad their districts, as well.

But one county in Alabama chooses to reject the Census Bureau’s faulty count of prison populations. Escambia County avoids giving the people who live near the prison 10% more political influence than residents of other county districts by removing the incarcerated population before county commissioner lines are drawn. By excluding the prison population, Escambia County ensures that all of its residents have equal representation.

Ideally, the Census Bureau should change where it counts incarcerated people. They should be counted as residents of their last home addresses, not the prison. Although, it’s too late for this to happen in time for 2011 redistricting, there is more than enough time for the problem of prison-based gerrymandering to be eradicated by the 2020 Census. In the interim, other counties should follow the lead of Escambia County and exclude the prison population before they begin redistricting.

The NYCLU and Common Clause/NY both applaud passage of the bill that will finally end of prison-based gerrymandering in New York.

by Aleks Kajstura, August 6, 2010

The New York Civil Liberties Union and Common Clause of New York both applaud passage of the bill that will finally end of prison-based gerrymandering in New York.

by Aleks Kajstura, August 6, 2010

The New York bill that ends prison-based gerrymandering in the state has been getting a lot of press coverage. Here are our top picks:

Impact of ending prison-based gerrymandering in New York's North Country.

by Peter Wagner, August 6, 2010

David Sommerstein on North Country Public Radio discusses the impact of New York’s new law ending prison-based gerrymandering.

Notably, Senator Aubertine explains why, although he’s not a proponent, he voted for the budget bill that included the elimination of prison-based gerrymandering. He explains that state and federal funding will not be affected. He goes on to say that 3,000 incarcerated people in his a district of 300,000 people amounts to “about 1%” and a very little impact.

Of course, the impact will be higher in the 45th Senate district which contains more prisons than any other district.

But the story singles out for “the biggest impact” two North Country counties, St. Lawrence and Jefferson, which were the only ones in the region that included the prison populations when drawing their legislative districts. All other counties in the region rejected the Census counts. St. Lawrence County used to exclude the prison populations but reversed course in a bitter partisan battle after the last Census.

In fact, one county district in St. Lawrence is 25% incarcerated. That’s a problem, says long-time reform advocate, St. Lawrence County Legislator Tedra Cobb. Leaving prisoners out of the districts is simple democracy. Districts should be based on equal numbers of community residents, and the people in the prisons are not a part of St. Lawrence County.

by Aleks Kajstura, August 4, 2010

The New York State Senate Majority, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice all posted their press releases celebrating the passage of a bill to end prison-based gerrymandering in New York.

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