Help End Prison Gerrymandering Prison gerrymandering funnels political power away from urban communities to legislators who have prisons in their (often white, rural) districts. More than a decade ago, the Prison Policy Initiative put numbers on the problem and sparked the movement to end prison gerrymandering.
Many of the leaders of redistricting and prison-based gerrymandering reform are cited in the series including Senator Schneiderman, Assemblyperson Jeffries, Susan Lerner of Common Cause, Dick Dadey of Citizen’s Union and Myrna Perez of the Brennan Center for Justice. Each segment is about 2 minutes long.
Civil rights groups cite our work on prison-based gerrymandering in their new guide to redistricting. The groups, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund), the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), and the Asian American Justice Center (AAJC), a member of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, released “The Impact of Redistricting In Your Community: A Guide to Redistricting,” in time for upcoming redistricting efforts.
A major issue with respect to the census and redistricting has been how and, more importantly, where prisoners are counted during the decennial census. Under residence rules that govern where people are counted in the decennial census, prisoners are counted at their places of incarceration on Census Day, not at
their home addresses. This becomes a significant problem in the context of redistricting because prisoners are not usually incarcerated in the same community as where they actually reside. This residence rule skews the balance of political power by inflating the population counts of communities where prisons are located by including the non-voting prison populations in these districts during the redistricting process.
While prison-based gerrymandering dilutes the votes of all residents who do not have prison in their district, the guide focuses on some of the harms specific to minority communities:
Over the last several decades, the percentage of Americans incarcerated in prisons has increased four-fold. Incarcerated persons are often held in areas that are geographically and demographically far removed from their home communities. For instance, although non-metropolitan counties contain only 20% of the national population, they host 60% of new prisons. In addition, because Latinos and African Americans are incarcerated at three to seven times the rate of Whites, where incarcerated people are counted has tremendous implications for how African-American and Latino populations are reflected in the census, and, consequently, how these communities are impacted through redistricting.
New York provides a stark example of how the census miscount of prisoners can distort political representation in the redistricting process. In New York, most of the state’s prisoners come from New York City (66%) but virtually all of them are
incarcerated upstate (91%), in a more rural and less populated region. When electoral districts are drawn, the prison population is included in the total population of the districts in which these prisons are located. Yet, in these districts, which host a large prison population, non-incarcerated residents do not share the prisoners’ concerns or interests. In addition, prisoners do not establish ties to these communities while they are incarcerated, and it is unlikely that ex-prisoners will remain in the community upon their release. Hence, the practice of including non-voting prisoners in the population of electoral districts where prisons are located provides distorted data of the actual residents who benefit from and are affected by the policies and programs in these districts.
The felon disfranchisement phenomenon diminishes the voting strength of entire minority communities, which are disproportionately plagued with concentrated poverty, sub-standard housing, limited access to healthcare and sub-standard education. Nationally, more than 5.3 million Americans are denied access to the right that is preservative of all other civil rights because of felony convictions. According to data released by the Census Bureau in 2006, of the estimated 2 million people living in prisons, roughly 60% are African-American and Latino.
Jeff Reichert has posted the screening schedule for the Gerrymandering film. With a national theatrical release on October 15, select showings before then, and more dates being added all the time, Gerrymandering will be near you soon.
From the official summary:
A wake-up-call documentary that exposes the hidden history of our country’s redistricting wars, mapping battles that take place out of public scrutiny but that shape the electoral landscape of American politics for decades at time, posing a threat not just to democrats and republicans, but democracy as a whole. Right now, across the country, our two major political parties are gearing up for a once-a-decade war whose winner will control Congress for the next ten years, and possibly more. There will be battles in every state, and each will be kept carefully hidden from the prying eyes of average voters who only become more disenchanted with their government with each meaningless election. Democrats and Republicans collude to keep these skirmishes private so that they can maintain total control over the ultimate political weapon: the ability to directly determine the outcome of elections. Why bother stuffing ballots when they can just draw districts? For the first time, Gerrymandering exposes the most effective form of manipulating elections short of outright fraud. After the 2010 Census is finished, will you know where your district went?
It’s a great film, but our favorite part is the film’s treatment of prison-based gerrymandering. 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. See a clip:
Jenigh Garrett of the NAACP LDF will talk about prison-based gerrymandering on the first panel “Race, Reform and Independent Redistricting Commissions.” The agenda features a number of the leading experts and commentators on prison-based gerrymandering, including Dale Ho, Brenda Wright, Nate Persily and Pamela Karlan. They will appear on various panels and speak about the role of the Voting Rights Act in redistricting, the importance of recognizing diversity in the context of redistricting, and strategies for safeguarding minority voting rights.
I’ll be in attendance and am looking forward to seeing you there!
Frank Green has an excellent story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the impact of prison-based gerrymandering in county government in Virginia. After the 2000 Census, the legislature passed a law allowing counties with census populations that are more than 12% incarcerated to exclude the prison population when drawing districts. Unfortunately, this left a number of counties with large prison populations ineligible for the new law and required to draw districts that give the prison districts extra influence.
In Southampton County, for example, the residents who live near the prison have more than twice the influence over county affairs as residents of other districts. Ideally, the legislature will change the law and allow all counties to exclude the prison populations from the districts if they wish.
I just received this press release from the Delaware House Majority announcing the governor’s signature of the bill ending prison-based gerrymandering. You can also read the bill or the Prison Policy Initiative / Demos press release from the bill’s passage.
Delaware House of Representatives House Majority Caucus
For Immediate Release:
Contact: Drew Volturo
September 1, 2010
Work: (302) 744-4001
Cell: (302) 593-5969
BILL ENSURING ACCURATE REDISTRICTING
COUNT SIGNED INTO LAW
Inmates would be counted at permanent residence instead of at correctional facility
WILMINGTON – Legislation ensuring that the population of each Delaware municipality and legislative district is accurately counted was signed into law on Tuesday afternoon.
Sponsored by Rep. Helene M. Keeley, House Bill 384 requires that inmates in a Delaware prison at the time of the decennial U.S. Census will be counted in the area they resided immediately prior to incarceration instead of being counted at the address of the correctional facility. Under the measure, the state would not be able to count prisoners who did not live in Delaware before they were incarcerated as part of the population. This would apply in determining the reapportionment and redistricting for the state.
The current practice of including prison populations in the districts in which the facilities are located artificially pads those districts and leaves inmates’ home districts under-represented. This skews research and demographic data that local governments and various groups use for planning purposes and to allocate resources.
“Most people who are in prison are not there for long periods of time,” said Rep. Keeley, D-Wilmington South. “When they are released, they often return to the communities they lived in before they were in prison. Having an accurate district population count helps government and nonprofit agencies plan and offer services more effectively.”
Maryland’s legislature passed its “No Representation Without Population Act” in April, becoming the first state to enact such a measure. New York State also passed a similar measure this summer.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, which advocates for passage of such laws, four states (Colorado, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia) encourage or even require local governments to exclude prison populations during redistricting. The group also lists Wilmington as an example of cities throughout the country that are affected by prison-based gerrymandering.