Interviews with local officials in Indiana reveal bi-partisan and wide-spread support for ending prison-based gerrymandering.

by Aleks Kajstura, May 31, 2011

DePauw University students created a great introductory video to the issue of prison-based gerrymandering. The students’ interviews with local officials in Indiana reveal bi-partisan and wide-spread support for ending prison-based gerrymandering:

As the video shows, prison-based gerrymandering in Indiana’s local governments is often inadvertent and results from confusion about the choices available to counties and municipalities.

Large prison populations can easily skew political power within a city. Terre Haute’s prison population, for example, nearly doubled over the past decade. Unless the council takes that into account when drawing districts, it faces drawing a district where 1/3 of the population are non-residents currently held at the local prisons.

As counties and municipalities across Indiana prepare to redistrict, they should join the over 100 local governments nationwide that avoid prison-based gerrymandering by adjusting their redistricting data.

Justin Levitt leads a discussion about the strategy and rationale of ending prison-based gerrymandering with advocates at the Redrawing the Boundaries: A Midwest Redistricting Discussion in October 2009.

by Peter Wagner, May 23, 2011

I just discovered video of a presentation that Justin Levitt made at the Redrawing the Boundaries: A Midwest Redistricting Discussion in Chicago in October 2009. He explains the problem of prison-based gerrymandering and then leads a detailed discussion with advocates about the strategy and rationale for reform. Although dated, it’s worth watching.

Questions include:

  • How are incarcerated people counted?
  • How are college students and the military counted?
  • Is there any data on how many prisoners–during the census period–return to their home communities, and as a consequence should be counted in their home communities?
  • If a state government elects to alter its prison count, when does that take place?
  • What’s the incentive for someone who benefits from a prison population to demand a census recount?
  • What are the primary effects of counting incarcerated people where they are incarcerated?
  • Does counting incarcerated people differ when it comes to congressional districts–versus state and local districts?

For more with Justin Levitt, see my podcast “Address Unknown” Podcast Episode #1 where we discuss the optimal way to structure a bill to eliminate prison-based gerrymandering.

Common Cause briefing on prison-based gerrymandering in Connecticut draws interest from legislators.

by Aleks Kajstura, May 18, 2011

Connecticut’s Common Cause held a briefing at the capitol to discuss prison-based gerrymandering in Connecticut.

The CT News Junkie covered the briefing, including some more in-depth reporting:

Bilal Dabir Sekou, associate professor of political science at the University of Hartford, used some statistics to illustrate the effect gerrymandering has on minorities. Black and Latino residents make up just 19 percent of the state’s population but are 72 percent of the inmate population, he said.

According to data from the 2000 Census, 75 percent of state’s prison cells are located in districts that are disproportionately white, he said. Most of the prisons are in five towns: Cheshire, East Lyme, Enfield, Somers, and Suffield, he said. Together, those towns are technically home to just 1 percent of the state’s prisoners, he said.

“Fifteen percent of one district was incarcerated, giving every group of 85 residents near the prison as much political influence as 100 residents as any other district in the state,” he said.

Rep. Tim O’Brien, D-New Britain, said that prison-based gerrymandering is a distortion of representation at the Connecticut’s Capitol. He pointed to a disconnect in the state’s laws.

There is a law that requires inmates who are eligible and willing to vote, to do so by absentee ballot in the municipality they came from, he said. But when it comes to population counts for legislative districts they are counted where they are incarcerated, he said.

Jonathan Kantrowitz also blogs about the issue at the CT Post.

Video of the briefing at the capitol is available on Connecticut Network. The briefing includes Connecticut legislators and representatives from Common Cause, Prison Policy initiative, A Better Way Foundation and the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (LDF).

The Common Cause press release:

Common Cause in Connecticut Urges State to End Prison Based Gerrymandering

As Connecticut prepares for the once a decade legislative redistricting and reapportionment, Common Cause in Connecticut called on political leadership to end Prison Based Gerrymandering, the problem caused by the counting incarcerated people in Connecticut as residents of the correctional facility not their home addresses. During the last Census in 2000, the U.S counted almost 20,000 people in state or federal prison cells in the state. Without using prisoners as padding, 7 state house districts would not meet federal minimum population requirements and would need to be redrawn.

“Prison-based gerrymandering distorts the democratic process and dilutes minority voting rights,” said Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Towns that have large prison populations, like Enfield, have decided not to treat prisoners as members of the local community when drawing local election district lines. The state as a whole should follow their example, and should stop using prison populations to arbitrarily and irrationally inflate the voting power of a handful of districts to the detriment of all other Connecticut citizens.”

“When I was incarcerated, I was prohibited by law from claiming that town as my residence,” said Kenny Jackson, Family Reentry of Bridgeport, “I shouldn’t have been counted there as if I was a resident.”

Connecticut should follow the lead of Maryland, Delaware and New York and abolish prison based gerrymandering. All three states passed legislation requiring the state to collect home address for incarcerated persons. The home address data will be used to adjust Census data for redistricting purposes so that districts will be based on everyone’s actual place of residence.

Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative said “The lines being drawn now will be in place for the next decade. The General Assembly needs to act quickly to ensure that all residents – regardless of whether they live next to a prison – are given the same voice.”

The Prison Policy Initiative’s analysis of the districts drawn after the 2000 Census found that:

  • 15% of one district was incarcerated, giving every group of 85 residents near the prison as much political influence as 100 residents in any other district in the state.
  • The majority of the state’s prison cells are in the 5 towns of Cheshire, East Lyme, Enfield, Somers and Suffield that together are home for just 1% of the state’s prisoners.
  • In a state where African-Americans are almost 13 times as likely to be incarcerated as whites, and Latinos are incarcerated 7.5 times as often as whites, crediting people in prison to the districts that contain the prisons has negative effects on minority representation. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 75% of the state’s prison cells are in legislative districts that are disproportionately White.

Reapportionment and Redistricting signal that decisions will soon be made about how many Representatives each State gets and even who will be your next Representatives and how likely they are to stay in power. And this is all happening without your vote, “All communities suffer when a small portion of Connecticut residents are granted more than their fair share of representation while the rest of Connecticut voters effectively have their votes diluted,” Cheri Quickmire, Executive Director of Common Cause in Connecticut said, “Giving a few communities extra representation just because they happen to have a correctional facility is not fair to the rest of Connecticut’s citizens.”


Demos testifies in support of avoiding prison-based gerrymandering in Massachusetts as legislative districts are redrawn.

by Aleks Kajstura, May 18, 2011

Massachusetts is in the midst of redrawing legislative districts for the next decade. Brenda Wright, Director of the Democracy Program at Demos, testified about prison-based gerrymandering before the Before the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting of the Massachusetts General Court. The extensive and thorough testimony included this summary of the problem:

Because of the rise in incarceration rates, the practice of allocating incarcerated persons to prison districts substantially skews redistricting. As shown by research conducted by the Prison Policy Initiative, without using prison populations as padding, five Massachusetts House districts would not have met minimum constitutional population requirements after the 2000 Census.

Kevin Peterson provides more background on redistricting issues facing Massachusetts in a recent CommonWealth Magazine article.

Bills are filed to keep two towns from having to add expensive precincts due to prison populations being counted in the towns.

by Peter Wagner, May 17, 2011

Last month, I reported:

Prisoners can’t vote, but will cost Mass. town extra funds for elections

Lynne Klaft reports in the Worcester Telegram that an increase in the prison population in the town of Lancaster Massachusetts is going to require creating a new election precinct for them, even though they can’t vote.

In Massachusetts, precincts are administrative units that determine where you vote, and Chapter 54 Section 6 of the Massachusetts General Laws defines certain maximum sizes for the precincts. In general, precincts can not have more than 4,000 people living in them. The 2,406 people incarcerated in two prisons put the town population at 8,055, or 55 people over the threshold for having two precincts.

Unless the law is quickly changed, the town must create a third precinct, hire more poll workers, purchase more equipment and other expenses. Our work to end prison-based gerrymandering focuses on the drawing of election districts like those in Gardner, not the impact of laws that regulate how crowded a precinct should be. But the story, New precinct needed for nonvoting population is yet another interesting example of how the Census Bureau’s decision to count incarcerated people as residents of the prison location creates additional burdens on the electoral systems and processes of the localities that host correctional facilities.

Special legislation to exempt Lancaster from the requirement to add another precinct has been filed as H03440. But Lancaster isn’t the only Massachusetts town facing the problem of having to create an extra precinct to because non-resident non-voters were counted as residents of a prison. As the similar bill H03439 explains, Harvard is in a similar position where the federal prison population is going to require the town to create an unnecessary second precinct.

These bills should pass because they are good for these towns and don’t have any negative effects for the home communities of incarcerated people, but the best solution, of course, would be for the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people in the correct location: at home.

Voters and Community groups intervene in suit to ensure that all New Yorkers are equally represented in state and local legislatures

May 17, 2011

Voters and Community Groups Intervening in Suit to Ensure that All New Yorkers Are Equally Represented in State and Local Legislatures

Brennan Center for Justice Jeanine Plant-Chirlin (646) 292-8322
Center for Law & Social Justice April Silver (718) 756-8501
Demos Lauren Strayer (212) 633-1413
LatinoJustice John Garcia (212) 739-7513
NAACP-LDF Melquiades Gagarin (212) 965-2783
NYCLU Michael Cummings (212) 607-3300 x363
Prison Policy Initiative Peter Wagner (413) 527-0845

Albany, NY – Today, top civil rights organizations filed a motion in New York Supreme Court asking to intervene to help defend New York’s new law allocating people in prison to their home communities for redistricting and reapportionment.

The Brennan Center for Justice, the Center for Law and Social Justice, Demos, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Prison Policy Initiative, representing fifteen rural and urban voters and three statewide nonprofit organizations, are seeking to defend the new law against a legal challenge brought by New York State Senator Elizabeth Little and others. The lawsuit, titled Little v. LATFOR, names the New York State Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR) and the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) as defendants.

The new law requires that incarcerated persons be counted as residents of their home communities, in accordance with the New York State Constitution’s provision that incarceration does not change one’s residence. The legislation applies to state and local legislative redistricting, and would not affect federal funding distributions.

Previously, legislative districts with prisons were credited with the population of the disenfranchised people temporarily incarcerated there. This practice, often called prison-based gerrymandering, gives extra influence to voters who live in the district with the most prisons, and dilutes the votes of every resident of a district with no (or fewer) prisons. The new law corrects this bias and assures that all communities in New York have equal representation in our government.

The most dramatic examples of prison-based gerrymandering are in upstate counties and cities. For example, half of a Rome City Council ward is incarcerated, giving the residents of that ward twice the influence of other city residents. Recognizing the distorting effect of prison-based gerrymandering at the local level, thirteen New York counties with large prisons – including four in Senator Little’s district – have historically exercised their discretion to remove the prison populations prior to redistricting.

The new law brings consistency to redistricting in New York, prohibiting the state and all local governments from giving extra political influence to districts that contain prisons. Sen. Little’s lawsuit seeks to have the new legislation struck down, the effect of which would require legislative districts – most notably her own, which contains 12,000 incarcerated persons – to include prison populations in their apportionment counts to the detriment of all other districts without prisons. Returning to this practice would not only unfairly inflate the districts of those with prisons at the expense of those without but also violate the New York State Constitution.

The organizations seeking to intervene include:

  • The NAACP New York State Conference, the state-level body in New York of the NAACP, a membership organization dedicated to protecting and enhancing the civil rights of African Americans and other people of color. The Conference has approximately 90,000 members statewide. “Persons incarcerated in correctional institutions do not participate in the life of the town or county where they are incarcerated,” said Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference. “Sen. Little and her co-plaintiffs are seeking to reverse one of New York’s most important civil rights advances in the previous decade, which would unfairly dilute the voting rights of New Yorkers in every corner of the state.”
  • Common Cause / NY, the New York branch of Common Cause, a nationwide, nonpartisan organization with 20,000 members in New York State that advocates for honest, accountable, and responsive government. “The way legislative district lines are drawn impacts citizens’ ability to participate effectively in our democracy,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause / NY. “Prison-based gerrymandering is a fundamentally unfair practice whose end was met with overwhelming applause. Voters in every region of the state would be hurt by a repeal of the new law.”
  • Voices of Community Activists and Leaders – New York, or VOCAL -NY, a statewide grassroots membership organization building power among low-income people who are living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, drug use and incarceration, along with the organizations that serve them, to create healthy and just communities. “Many of our members live in communities that are heavily impacted by the criminal justice system and have a disproportionate number of residents sent to state prison,” said Ramon Velasquez, a VOCAL-NY leader. “Every district that has fewer prisons than Senator Little’s district loses representation from prison-based gerrymandering, but the districts that see many of their members counted in prison lose even more.”

# # #

The Times Union ran commentary critical of a lawsuit seeking to bring prison-based gerrymandering back to New York while the DOJ approved the new law.

by Aleks Kajstura, May 17, 2011

The New York Daily News reports that the law ending prison-based gerrymandering in the state passed the Department of Justice’s review.

The Justice Department’s pre-clearance of the law does not, however, deter the law’s opponents. The Times Union published commentary written by Ekow N. Yankah, an assistant law professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and Leonard Kohen, an election law and voting rights attorney. The writers discussed a lawsuit aimed to return prison-based gerrymandering to New York.

The senators’ lawsuit challenges the law as giving unequal treatment to “different classes” of voters. Further, they argue that because the state Constitution allegedly contains no specific provisions for how to count prisoners in the census, a constitutional amendment was required to enact the law.

They can support their arguments only by distorting the state constitution. First, the constitution, in the very section that they cite in their complaint (Article III, section 4), allows the state to use other information where the federal census data is not precise or adequate for apportioning electoral districts.

Second and most directly, both the constitution and state election law explicitly guarantee that, for voting purposes, no one shall be deemed to have lost his or her residence while confined in prison. Thus, the premise of their lawsuit flatly contravenes the state constitution.

The constitution has always been clear that prisoners remain residents of their pre-incarceration addresses for voting purposes, and for the first time our state redistricting procedures will be in compliance. Indeed, nowhere in the lawsuit do the senators mention that before the enactment of the law that they are challenging, the majority of New York’s counties that have large prisons refused to use the prison populations in drawing their country districts.

Shapefiles and online databases make it even easier to use the Census Bureau's group quarters data in the redistricting process.

by Peter Wagner, May 17, 2011

Last month, the Census Bureau released the Census Bureau’s Advance Group Quarters Summary File, which for the first time identified which census blocks contain group quarters, such as correctional facilities, early enough that state and local redistricting bodies can choose to use this data to draw fair districts.

The day after the release, we announced a series of tools designed to make this data easier for redistricting professionals and advocates to use. To recap, we’ve made:

  1. A point shapefile with the group quarters counts for each block in the country: The file contains the number of people in group quarters, and the number of people in different types of group quarters (including correctional facilities). Each blocks that contain a correctional facility includes a URL that links to our database of block annotations.
  2. A county-searchable database of census blocks that contain correctional facilities and our annotations. The data is viewable in tabular and Google maps formats at:

    For more advanced uses, including preliminary research for Count Question Resolution appeals and determining which blocks should be adjusted prior to redistricting, we’ve made available databases of state, federal, and local correctional facilities and their populations on dates as close to Census day as possible and as well as a memo about new large correctional facilities that were built over the last decade. These resources may be particularly helpful if a block that is of interest to you isn’t yet annotated in our database. These tools are at:

  3. Finally, we’ve written two introductions to the data and its uses:

We hope these tools help you draw fairer districts. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about these tools.

Maryland releases redistricting data, adjusted to avoid prison-based gerrymandering in the state.

by Aleks Kajstura, May 4, 2011

Maryland just released its “Green Report” of redistricting data, adjusted to prevent prison-based gerrymandering in the state.

The Maryland Department of Planning announces:

The report, released jointly by the Maryland Departments of Planning, Legislative Services, and Public Safety and Correctional Services, contains tables of population counts for the 1,849 voting districts, or precincts, in Maryland’s 23 counties and Baltimore City. The counts were derived from the 2010 Census. Also, for the first time, the data was adjusted for the purposes of creating Congressional, State Legislative and local districting plans in accordance with the “No Representation Without Population Act,” signed into Maryland law in 2010. This law requires that census data be adjusted to reassign Maryland residents in correctional institutions to their last known address and to exclude out-of-state residents in correctional institutions for the purposes of the redistricting count.

The Green Report is available through the Maryland redistricting website, which contains additional population tables for the report as well as other data, FAQs and other tools to make the Maryland redistricting process accessible to the public.

California bill to end prison-based gerrymandering introduced by Assembly Member Davis; Dale Ho of the LDF testified in support.

by Aleks Kajstura, May 3, 2011

Assembly Member Davis recently introduced legislation to end prison-based gerrymandering in California. AB 420, An act to add Section 21003 to the Elections Code, relating to redistricting, received the support of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) in testimony today.

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