Miss. counties have simple solution to complex gerrymandering

Mississippi counties face complex gerrymandering problems unless they exclude prison populations when redistricting.

by Aleks Kajstura, April 4, 2011

According to a recent article by Molly Davis, for the Associated Press, Mississippi counties are currently redistricting their local governments, and trying to avoid prison-based gerrymandering.

In Mississippi, prisons are concentrated in the Delta, an area with a significant black population. It is unclear whether most counties are following the state attorney general’s instructions to exclude inmates in redistricting or the census’ policy of including them in the count, but such decisions affect whether counties are in compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In Mississippi, prison-based gerrymandering takes on a new twist:

Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, who chairs the House Elections Committee, said that including prison populations in county redistricting tallies actually helps to preserve voting strength in those districts.

This argument provides the basis for criticism of “prison-based gerrymandering” in the northeastern United States, where the problem tends to inflate the population of the largely white communities where the prisons are located, at the expense of the low-income city neighborhoods where many of the inmates come from.

In Mississippi counties such as Leflore and Sunflower, which have prisons as well as a significant black population, Rhodes said the problem is more complicated.

He said that drawing a district that includes a large number of non-voting black prisoners could artificially inflate the black population, creating a phantom minority-majority district while actually “cracking” the voting black population, or dividing them into separate districts, thus diluting their real voting strength. Rhodes said that such action would appear to comply with the Voting Rights Act on paper, but in reality would put counties at risk for a lawsuit.

“They could be taken to court for excluding (prisoners) in redistricting plans, but if they include them they have to draw them in such a way that they don’t include them in a marginal minority district,” he said.

Mike Sayer, of Southern Echo, summarizes:

“When a large prison population is included in a district it can create the illusion of a majority-minority district,” said Sayer. “If most of those who are incarcerated are minorities and unable to vote then you may have a majority-minority district on paper, but perhaps not in reality.”

Although some lawmakers assume that “Mississippi would risk losing federal dollars by excluding the prison population from those calculations,” no federal (or state) aid is based on redistricting data. Therefore, a county that excludes prison populations from their district totals faces no risk of losing state or federal aid.

Mississippi counties that follow the advice of the Attorney General and exclude prison populations from local redistricting data can easily solve complex gerrymandering problems and draw districts that are closer to the principles of “one person, one vote.”

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