California bill advances with careful messaging

Prison-based gerrymandering affects political representation, not funding. When messaging matches this reality, legislation gains more support.

by Peter Wagner, June 29, 2011

California’s bill AB420 to end prison-based gerrymandering is rapidly advancing in the Senate. It passed the House and, as of last week, the Committee of Elections and Constitutional Amendments. It is in the Committee on Appropriations now.

I suspect that the bill is advancing so quickly largely because of the very careful messaging from the chief sponsor, Rep. Mike Davis (D-Los Angeles). In this NBC interview he clearly explains why prison-based gerrymandering violates California law.

The video demonstrates that Rep. Davis is taking care to make sure that people do not misunderstand the purpose of his bill:

“Election Code 2025 of the California Constitution indicates that California’s preference is to have inmates counted, for the purpose of redistricting, where they live, not where they’re incarcerated. Unfortunately, California has been counting prisoners for the purpose of redistricting where they are incarcerated. The unintended consequence—I believe it’s unintended—is that we have some individuals who represent districts where they have large numbers of prisoners that are not in their communities.”

He’s exactly right. The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people in the wrong place, jeopardizing the integrity of the electoral process. Although many people associate the Census with the allocation of federal funds, the reality is that the prison miscount has at most a very minimal impact on the distribution of funds. Rep. Davis’s bill is simply not about the money. Instead, the bill would solve prison-based gerrymandering, the largest—and easiest to fix—part of the problem. The result would be fair redistricting and equal political power in the State of California.

Elsewhere, legislative proposals to end prison-based gerrymandering have been derailed by misplaced concerns about funding. In McAlester, Okla, for example, a city discussion about removing the prison population prior to redistricting came to an abrupt standstill after one councilor raised his unfounded concern that federal funding could be affected:

There was a small discussion about amending the charter [which requires that the federal Census population be used]….

That conversation ended when a councilman proposed the possibility of losing federal money.

“We also want to count prisoners so we get our federal money allocation,” said Weldon Smith.

I find that quote particularly frustrating because under the previous charter, the City of McAlester had the flexibility to choose the population basis for redistricting, and it refused to engage in prison-based gerrymandering. And that decision didn’t cost the city a dime, but in the intervening decade too many people forgot about the city’s fair districting history. So now, they are going to give the people who live near the prison 3 times the political clout of people who live in other parts of the city.

A similar story can be seen in Illinois, where much of the opposition to an Illinois bill to end prison-based gerrymandering in also centered on a similar groundless concern. An April 26, 2011 letter to the editor in The Daily Times from a state representative, county chairman, and town mayor—each of whom represent an Illinois prison—clearly illustrates this confusion. In their letter, they admit that the bill “may not seem significant on it’s face,” [emphasis added] but predict that the bill would, “have a dramatic effect on the flow of tax dollars to local communities.”

This claim is entirely false. For example, the largest pot of federal money in Illinois that is based in part on the Census is the distribution of highway funds, and the controlling statute requires that the federal census be used to determine the funding allocation. Changing the data used for state redistricting would not affect the funding distribution because the underlying Census data would not be changed. (For a more detailed explanation, see our blog post).

Skeptics who question this logical conclusion may find a different approach helpful. Two of the above letter writers, the Livingston County Chairman and the Pontiac City Mayor, represent government bodies that rejected the idea of claiming incarcerated people as local residents after the last Census. These local governments refused to draw county and municipal electoral districts that would have given some county or city residents extra representation. By adjusting the Census data for redistricting purposes, they successfully drew fair districts based on actual resident population.

Would the Chairman and the Mayor have rejected the proposal to exclude incarcerated populations when they redistricted 10 years ago if would have cost the county or city funds? Perhaps. But it clearly didn’t, and it won’t this time either.

So where did the Chairman and the Mayor get the ill-founded idea that legislation to end prison-based gerrymandering would impact funding? Some of the blame goes to the Census Bureau, which often uses overly simplistic rhetoric about why the Census is important that implies a linear relationship between Census counts and budgets. But some of the responsibility also belongs with reform advocates who didn’t take sufficient care to make sure that both their supporters and opponents understood that the policy reform being sought addressed politics, not pennies.

In my experience, being clear on this one point can be the deciding factor between the success and failure of a campaign to end prison-based gerrymandering.

One response:

  1. […] according to an article from April, there was a concern that such a change would affect the city’s federal funding. This is an unwarranted concern. […]

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