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

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.

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