Most California counties that contain large prisons take a sensible approach to creating their county supervisor districts. These counties omit the prison populations from their calculations when drawing supervisor districts. One reason why the counties don’t have a prison-based gerrymandering problem might be the advice that the California Attorney General’s office gave them during the 1990 redistricting process.
In that opinion letter, the state Attorney General’s office assured counties that they are free to exclude prisoners from the total population for purposes of redistricting, and that such a policy “embodies a legitimate state interest of maintaining voting strength among voters of the various districts.”
The opinion does an excellent job of laying out many of the reasons why it is not only permissible, but preferable, for county governments to exclude incarcerated populations when creating electoral districts:
[I]nclusion of [state prisoners and those in juvenile custody facilities] might well create an imbalance in voting strength and a dilution of voting power among district voters. For example, if a district has 20,000 in population of which 5,000 are state prisoners, the non-prisoner population in that district will have greater voting power in selecting a supervisor, as well as greater access to that supervisor, than the non-prisoner populations in the other four districts. A vote in the district containing the state prison will necessarily count more; in comparison, the voting power of persons in the other districts will be diluted.
The opinion hits on a crucial point when it notes that “[c]laims of minority vote dilution [caused by including prisons for districting purposes] will be especially significant if the prisoner and ward populations are not reflective of the racial and language minority populations of the county as a whole.” As has been well documented, this is in fact the situation in many counties which house significant prison populations.
The story provides a great introduction to the prison-based gerrymandering problems facing Connecticut. Although the Connecticut legislature failed to pass reforms last session, there is renewed hope for ending prison-based gerrymandering in Connecticut next year:
With the initial backing of Connecticut Common Cause and the Prison Policy Initiative, state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, says he will introduce a bill in the 2011 legislative session that would change how residency of state prisoners is determined.
For more information about prison-based gerrymandering in Connecticut see our continually updated page on the current campaign for change in Connecticut.
Last week the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) launched its public education program “Redrawing the Lines.”
The newly-unveiled website features user-friendly content that providing an overview of the redistricting process. The site has a Redistricting 101 guide that includes a page on the impact of prison populations on redistricting. Efforts to end prison-based gerrymandering are also highlighted among other reform efforts.
Although rarely discussed in the context of redistricting, both the census miscount of prisoners and felon disfranchisement laws have a significant impact on minority communities. While much of the redistricting reform debate has focused on partisanship and IRCs, these proposals have failed to address two very significant problems faced by minority communities during the redistricting process.
The Redrawing the Lines program promotes the importance of participating in the redistricting process, the site provides a good general summary of the ways in which the districting process is manipulated and encourages everyone to get involved.
Last night I spoke on a panel with director Jeff Reichert at a screening of the Gerrymandering at Yale Law School Room 129 in New Haven CT. The event was organized by Common Cause Connecticut, American Constitution Society and Yale Law School Democrats. Many of the key advocates for ending prison-based gerrymandering were there, including Common Cause Connecticut Executive Director Cheri Quickmire, State Representative Gary Holder-Winfield, and former state Representative Bill Dyson.
Turnout was great, and the discussion was excellent. Screenings like these are key to raising awareness and building more momentum for reform. But what’s missing? You.
We need to organize more screenings of the film. The next one that I’ll be attending is not until Dec. 9 in Marblehead Mass. If you can’t make it to Massachusetts, contact us or director Jeff Reichert about scheduling a screening near you.
She explains that gerrymandering districts around prisons helps makes reforming the budget-busting prison system more difficult. But unlike New York, Illinois’ districts with large prisons are evenly distributed between Republicans and Democrats. The bi-partisan support for retaining prison-based gerrymandering doesn’t make ending the practice any easier, but if Illinois wants to fair districts to guide the state for the next decade, reform is needed:
“The state has about 50,000 men and women in prison. Though most of the state’s prisons are downstate, most of the state’s prison inmates are from the Chicago area. Most of them will return to the Chicago area in less than two years. Counting prison inmates where they’re confined rather than where they live means Chicago basically exports political power to prison-padded districts downstate.
“We ought to be a bit more grateful to Chicago down here. Especially with a round of legislative redistricting on the horizon and downstate potentially in line to lose yet another Illinois House seat because population hasn’t kept up with the competition.
“Except it’s not fair. Not to the prison inmates who can’t vote. Not to voters in districts that don’t have prisons. Not to basic democratic principles.
“And it definitely doesn’t provide much political incentive to pass reforms that would reduce the more than $1 billion annually the state spends on prisons.”
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund created an interactive map highlighting key voting rights issues across the United States. Prison-based gerrymandering was included among Voting Rights Act violations, voter purging, access to polling places, and other issues standing in the face of fair elections.
Examples of prison-based gerrymandering include:
Both Harris and Dallas counties, the largest counties in Texas, lose the most people when prisoners are counted in prison districts rather than their actual residences. Harris County, for instance, makes up 16.3 percent of the state’s population, but supplies 21.5 percent of the state’s prisoners, losing about 25,000 people in its Census count.
Native American and Latino communities are overrepresented in the Idaho prison system, yet they are counted in the Census as residents of their prison rather than their home communities. These disfranchised prisoners lend political power to prison towns even though they are not deemed constituents of the representatives who serve these areas.
Seven of Oklahoma’s House districts meet the federal minimal population requirements because incarcerated citizens are counted as residents of the district in which their prison is located.
In addition to prison-based gerrymandering problems in other states, the LDF also highlights work already done in Delaware, Maryland, and New York:
Progress: In September 2010, the governor of Delaware signed House Bill 284, which requires that prison inmates be counted at their place of residence prior to incarceration, marking an important step in the effort to end the long practice of prison-based gerrymandering.
Progress: This year, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law the No Representation Without Population Act. This Act will help ensure that individuals who are in prison are counted in their home districts rather than the districts where they are currently incarcerated during redistricting.
Progress: LDF congratulates the New York State Senate and Governor Patterson for ending prison-based gerrymandering in New York. This courageous decision will bring New York’s redistricting process in line with basic principles of democracy, and will serve as a model for other states in the effort to count incarcerated populations correctly in the next round of redistricting.
Gerrymandering, the movie, that is. Jeff Reichert’s new documentary, Gerrymandering has a segment on prison-based gerrymandering featuring the findings of the Prison Policy Initiative, and our Executive Director, Peter Wagner.
Some reviews from critics more impartial than us:
“Riveting.” – Bob Mondello, NPR All Things Considered
“An exceptionally entertaining film.” – Bilge Ebiri, New York Magazine
“Every American voter should see this.” – Paul Constant, The Stranger
“****. If you care about the future of America, see this movie.” – Matt Thomas, NY Examiner
“Cinematic – in the best way – all the way through.” – Howard Feinstein, Screen International
“A film seemingly made for Jon Stewart’s ‘Restoring Sanity’ movement.” – Stan Hall, The Oregonian
The once-obscure issue of prison-based gerrymandering has come a long way over the past decade. Gerrymandering‘s coverage of prison-based gerrymandering even made it’s way into Moviefone’s musings about the nature of documentaries!
In addition to one-time screenings, the movie is going to be officially openes in limited release tomorrow, October 15, 2010. We have a supplemental factsheet [PDF] available for download, if you’re going to see the movie feel free to print some off and hand them out!
We’re often asked by state officials what they can do about prison-based gerrymandering in their states and if we can send them some introductory information. We usually send out something like the information below. Additionally, for state-specific information on the problems caused by prison-based gerrymandering, see our report Fixing prison-based gerrymandering after the 2010 Census: A 50 state guide.
The Census count and prison-based gerrymandering:
The problem, the solutions and what can be done today
The Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” cases require state and municipal districts to be redrawn each decade so that each district contains the same number of people and each resident, therefore, has the same access to government. A long-standing flaw in the decennial census, however, systematically counts more than 2 million people in the wrong place and undermines the “one person, one vote” principle. Although people in prison can’t vote and remain residents of their home addresses, the Census Bureau counts people in prison as residents of their prison cells instead. Using this flawed data to draw districts grants the people who live near large prisons extra influence at the expense of voters everywhere else.
Crediting prisoners from all over the state to the predominately rural districts that contain large prisons enhances the weight of a vote in those districts, diluting all other votes in the state.
Prisoners are disproportionately Black or Latino, and outside of the Deep South, most prisons are built in disproportionately white areas. Using Black and Latino prisoners to pad the populations of white legislative districts dilutes minority voting strength state-wide.
Rural county and municipal districts are smaller than state legislative districts, so prison-based gerrymandering can create an even larger problem for people who live near but not immediately adjacent to a large prison. Some examples:
A true “rotten borough”: In Anamosa Iowa, a man won a city council seat with two write-in votes, neither of which he cast. There were no candidates because 96% of the district was incarcerated in a large prison. The handful of voters in the district had 25 times as much influence on the city council as residents elsewhere in the city.
“Majority-minority” in name only: In Somerset County, MD, a county commission district that was deliberately drawn as a majority-minority district in order to settle a Voting Rights Act lawsuit has been unable to elect an African-American because a prison population, which cannot vote, was included in the population. The actual African-American resident population in the district is too small to elect an African-American candidate. It would have been possible to draw an effective majority-minority district had the prison population not skewed the data.
Ask the U.S. Census Bureau to count incarcerated people at home in the next Census, and work to improve state correctional data systems to facilitate that change.
As an interim solution, refuse to pad the populations of legislative districts that contain prisons. Adjust the census data used for redistricting so that all incarcerated people are considered to be residents of unknown locations, and are not included in any individual district.
Costs are minimal at most because existing infrastructure generally exists at Departments of Corrections and in the redistricting and planning agencies. Furthermore, the Census Bureau has already changed its data publication schedule to make it easier to identify prison populations in its redistricting data. Finally, the most efficient and cost-effective solution has no cost at all to the states: ask the Census Bureau to count prisoners at home.
The principle of “one person, one vote” requires that legislative districts be drawn so that each contains the same number of people counted in the correct location. The Prison Policy Initiative would be happy to help states determine the most appropriate next steps considering the state constitution, redistricting timelines and available state corrections data.
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.