Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission wrangles with prison-based gerrymandering

Arizona's Redistricting Commission has announced that it will be cognizant of prison-based gerrymandering during the redistricting process, and will exclude incarcerated populations for the purposes of evaluating majority-minorty districts.

by Leah Sakala, September 14, 2011

It looks like this time around Arizona is paying attention to the issue of prison-based gerrymandering.

At a meeting this week, the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission recognized that counting incarcerated populations as residents of the districts in which they are confined could have a harmful effect on Arizona democracy. The meeting included technical and legal briefings, as well as compelling testimony from Mohur Sidhwa and Jim March.

After a lengthy discussion about the issue and various solutions, the Redistricting Commission promised to keep in mind the potential distortion caused by counting incarcerated people in the wrong place. Commissioner Richard Stertz explained that in particular the commission

…[doesn’t] want to give any indication of creating a non-voting population in a particular legislative district that would lead those that can vote into a hyper-majority by virtue of having so many prisoners in a particular legislative district.

The Redistricting Commission also clarified that it would exclude prisons from its Voting Rights Act Section 5 analysis in order to avoid creating “artificial majority-minority districts” comprised largely of non-voting incarcerated populations. As the Commission’s redistricting expert Bruce Adelson emphasized,

The election analysis in determining what are effective majority-minority districts where minorities have the opportunity to elect, as we’ve talked about, cannot include felons who are incarcerated because they can’t vote.

Prison-based gerrymandering was originally not on the Commission’s agenda. But the Commission’s recent announcement followed a new round of public attention to the problem. In particular, Amanda Crawford wrote a great article raising the issue in Phoenix Magazine, and as I blogged last month, AZBlueMeanie has been writing about the problem on Blog for Arizona. There has also been repeated detailed testimony at Commission meetings from Jim March of BlackBoxVoting and others arguing that avoiding prison-based gerrymandering is both advisable and technically feasible.

Video footage of the September 8, 2011 hearing is available on the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission’s website.

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