Perfect Storm in Arkansas County Worsens Prison-Based Gerrymandering

The combination of a falling population and swelling prison made Jackson County's prison-based gerrymandering problem even worse.

by Hillary Fenton, August 10, 2012

Like many counties across the country, Jackson County in northeastern Arkansas relied on the 2010 Census to determine its population for redistricting purposes. Unfortunately, because the Census Bureau counts those in prison where they are incarcerated rather than where they are from, Jackson County’s use of unadjusted census data has resulted in distortion of democracy among its Justice of the Peace districts, amplified even more by a shrinking county population and a growing prison population.

This distortion is a result of prison-based gerrymandering, or the counting of nonvoting prison populations as part of the total population during redistricting. Because the widely-used U.S. Census continues to count those in prison at their place of incarceration, prison-based gerrymandering is a problem nationwide. Even though Arkansas state law declares that incarceration does not change a person’s legal domicile, Jackson County ended up including its prison population in its redistricting data because they relied on unadjusted census counts.

Jackson County contains two large state prisons, the Grimes and McPherson Units. Grimes is a medium security men’s facility, and McPherson is a women’s prison and includes the women’s death row. The two facilities were opened in 1998 by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, and were later transferred to the state and expanded. According to the 2010 Census, the total incarcerated population of both facilities is 1,777.

After both the 2000 and 2010 censuses, Jackson County drew the 5th Justice of the Peace district to encompass the Grimes and McPherson Units, including the prison populations in the total district population. After the redistricting based on the 2000 Census, the populations of the Grimes and McPherson Units made up nearly two thirds (64%) of District 5’s total population. After redistricting following the 2010 Census, due to a 2.4% drop in the county’s overall population and a rise in the prison population, the percentage of the district population made up by the incarcerated population rocketed to 87%.

Prison-based gerrymandering distorts democracy because including prison populations during redistricting inflates the political power of those voting in a prison district. Each of Jackson County’s Justice of the Peace districts should, based on the Census, have around 2000 people. According to the census, each district does have around that number; however, because of the inclusion of the Grimes and McPherson Units in District 5’s population, only 278 people out of the total population of 2055 are eligible to vote. This means that, even though District 5 has a voting population a fraction of a size of other districts, those 278 people are still able to elect a whole representative for themselves just like those in districts with 2000 voters. The inclusion of the prisons in the total population of District 5 artificially inflates the political power of the voters there because it gives 1 voter in District 5 the same say in county government as 7 voters in other districts. Redistricting is supposed to ensure that citizens are equally represented in government, but in places like Jackson County, the inclusion of prison populations during redistricting gives disproportionate influence to those in prison districts. In Arkansas, this problem is not limited to Jackson County; several other counties in the state also drew Justice of the Peace districts that were distorted by prison populations in the last redistricting cycle.

Fortunately, several states require that counties and municipalities exclude incarcerated populations during redistricting, and more than 100 county and municipal governments across the country choose to do this on their own. Four of those counties are in Arkansas: Lee, Lincoln, St. Francis, and Hot Spring counties all chose to modify 2010 Census data and leave out their prison populations during 2010 redistricting. Though it is encouraging that some states and many local governments have acted to prevent prison-based gerrymandering, ideally the Census Bureau should count incarcerate people at their home addresses in the first place, a solution that would eradicate the problem of prison-based gerrymandering nationwide.

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