One person, two votes in Pacific, Missouri?

The city of Pacific, Missouri is in danger of using a prison to dilute the votes of a two-thirds of its citizens.

by Peter Wagner, October 13, 2011

The City of Pacific, Missouri is in danger of diluting the votes of a two-thirds of its citizens.

Yesterday’s Washington Missourian reports that the city’s current redistricting plan counts the more than 1,000 people incarcerated in the Missouri Eastern Correctional Facility in Ward 1, making up nearly half of the ward’s entire population. This means that a resident of this ward would have about twice the political clout of a resident in any other ward, just because he or she lives near a prison.

Is that fair? Of course not. I just submitted a letter to the editor to the Missourian explaining why:

City of Pacific should refuse to use prison in redistricting

If you live in the Second or Third Ward, your vote is going to be worth half as much as if you lived next to the prison in the First. [“Redistricting Plan Selected for Ward Boundaries” October 12, 2011] That’s not fair. Districts are supposed to be based on equal numbers of residents. By common sense and the state constitution, prisoners are not residents of the prison.

The Missouri state constitution defines residence for people in prison: “no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence by reason of his presence or absence while… confined in public prison.” (Article VIII, S 6.)

The Census counts people in the prison as residents of Pacific, but the federal law does not require the city to use those counts. In fact the Supreme Court has said it’s ok to remove them:

“Neither in Reynolds v. Sims nor in any other decision has this Court suggested that the States are required to include … persons denied the vote for conviction of crime in the apportionment base by which their legislators are distributed and against which compliance with the Equal Protection Clause is to be measured. The decision to include or exclude any such group involves choices about the nature of representation with which we have been shown no constitutionally founded reason to interfere.” Burns v Richardson 384 U.S. 73, 92 (1966).

The City of Pacific should join the more than 100 counties and cities across the country that refuse to use the Census Bureau’s prison counts when drawing districts.

The City may not have known that this solution was legal or common when it prepared the proposed maps, but it should take action quickly to ensure that all residents are given the same power to determine the future of Pacific.

Peter Wagner
Executive Director
Prison Policy Initiative
Easthampton, Massachusetts

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