Local governments still struggling with Census’ prison counts

In redistricting, local governments struggle with Census treating prison populations as residents of the prison location.

by Aleks Kajstura, December 30, 2011

Prison populations can severely skew local government districts, where the presence of just one large prison can account for a large percentage of a town or county’s population. Although the Census Bureau has made excluding prison populations from local redistricting easier by providing advance group quarters data, a comparison of two recent local papers reveals that local governments still struggle with Census redistricting data to achieve equal districts.

Bon Homme County, South Dakota and the City of Fulton, Missouri both have a large prison within their boundaries. They are currently redistricting following the 2010 Census; attempting to draw each district or ward to have equal population in order to give each resident an equal representation in local government.

But this process is undermined by the Census Bureau’s population data, which include prison populations as if they were residents of the town or county. Fulton, for example, relied on census population data when it drew its city council wards a decade ago and ended up with a ward where about half of the “residents” were actually people incarcerated in state correctional facility located in the ward. This meant that actual residents of the ward have had twice as much influence over city affairs as everyone else in the city. This month, the city is extending the disproportionate influence of residents in ward 2 for another ten years, because, as Fulton’s Director of Administration Bill Johnson puts it, they “take the census at face value and draw lines based on what is provided by the census bureau.”

Bon Homme County is facing a similar problem, but is choosing instead to adjust the population data to give county residents equal power regardless of which district they live in. In order to base the districts on actual resident populations, the city needed to adjust the Census figures to exclude the prison population that the Census counted as Bon Homme residents.

In addition to the technical aspects of making the adjustment, local officials are often uncertain of their legal ability to make such changes – Bon Homme actually considered switching to an at-large election system to avoid these questions. As I explained in a letter to the editor, however, such concerns are unwarranted because state laws usually support this surprisingly common practice.

Still, Fulton and Bon Homme are just two of hundreds of local governments faced with Census data that is unsuitable for creating fair and equal districts. Bon Homme’s Auditor Tammy Brunken sums up their situation: “The feds have created this monster.”

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