For California Counties, Preventing Prison-Based Gerrymandering is the Norm
Once again, ten California counties with large prison populations avoided prison-based gerrymandering when redrawing their board of supervisors' districts.
by Hillary Fenton and Aleks Kajstura, September 13, 2012
Last year, California became the 4th state to pass legislation ending prison-based gerrymandering for state legislative redistricting. Unlike the Maryland and New York laws, which apply to state legislative, county and municipal redistricting, the California law applies only to state legislative redistricting. But even though the law doesn’t extend to local governments, many are taking action on their own.
As part of my summer law clerkship with the Prison Policy Initiative, I set out to determine how California counties with large prisons have traditionally addressed the problem of prison-based gerrymandering.
I discovered that the same ten counties that the Prison Policy Initiative identified as having avoided prison-based gerrymandering after the 2000 Census did so again after the 2010 Census. These are the 10 counties with the proportionally largest prison populations, so engaging in prison-based gerrymandering would have created the largest distortions of representation.
When I was determining which California counties avoided prison-based gerrymandering, for the most part I had to analyze redistricting maps and data to calculate whether the prison populations were included or excluded in the district populations. However, I came across four counties that, in their redistricting documentation, were explicit in their removal of prison populations to prevent prison-based gerrymandering.
For example, the Imperial County redistricting committee declared in a report that they decided to leave out the prison population early on in the redistricting process. In support of their decision, the committee pointed out that many California counties choose to exclude and also cited a 1991 California Attorney General opinion supporting their decision.
Similarly, the counties of Del Norte, Monterey, and Kings were also explicit in avoiding prison-based gerrymandering. In Del Norte County, the county clerk’s analysis of 2010 Census population information for the redistricting committee showed that the incarcerated population was subtracted from the “net population for redistricting purposes.” In Monterey County, the citizen’s redistricting committee expressed their decision to exclude prisoners in a report to the county supervisory board. And in Kings County, the supervisory district map published on the county website states that the given populations do not include the county’s incarcerated population.
Other counties that excluded the prison populations to avoid prison-based gerrymandering were Lassen County, Amador County, Tuolumne County, Madera County, Kern County, and San Luis Obispo County.
I found four counties, each with proportionately smaller prison populations than the counties discussed above, that included the prison populations when drawing districts and therefore diluted the votes of all county residents who do not live next to the prison. These counties were Solano County, Marin County, Modoc County, and Santa Barbara County.
Three of those counties have proportionally small prison populations compared to the population of individual districts, and the vote enhancement from prison-based gerrymandering ranged from 4% to 10%.
Including the prison populations in redistricting data had the highest impact in Solano County, where District 4 was drawn to contain the 8,649 people incarcerated at the 4 largest correctional facilities in the county. So the Solano County Board of Supervisors gave the actual residents of District 4 11% more influence than people in other county supervisor districts.
Solano County is of note because the county actually discussed avoiding prison-based gerrymandering. Citing an absence of guidance from the state, the Board of Supervisors chose to include the prison populations because that is what they had done in past decades.
Solano struggled with the issue of counting prison populations in April of 2011. Then six months later, the state passed a law to count incarcerated people at home for the purposes of drawing state legislative districts. With a clear trend in the State to move away from using prison populations to distort districts, Solano now has compelling guidance to make the right choice in 2021.
In 1991 the city of Coalinga annexed an outlying square mile that included the local prison. Coalinga is a small city and elects its city council members at large, so there are no districts in the town. What motive would there be in having several thousand more non-voting residents within the city limits? Are there monetary grants that cities and towns get from the state that are based on a municipality’s population? Interestingly, in 2005 a mental hospital to house civilly committed sex offenders who have completed their prison terms was built on the prison grounds. Several hundred of those involuntarily confined mental patients had completed their three-year paroles by that time and were able to register to vote. However, unaware that they resided within the city limits of Coalinga, no one complained that Coalinga’s city-wide offices did not appear on their Fresno County ballots. This disenfranchisement persisted for six years through the most recent November 2012 election, when the error was pointed out in a complaint to the Fresno County Clerk, who stated that she was unaware the hospital was within the city limits of Coalinga. The City Manager meanwhile has stated his own ignorance of the discrepancy between the ballots for those living in town and those residing in the hospital, who all vote by absentee ballot. This problem should now be rectified by the 2014 election, but what recourse is there to make up for the four elections in which hundreds of patients were disallowed to participate in the municipal franchise, and will we ever be able to find out why this really happened? Can it really have been due merely to negligence?
The folks committed to the mental hospital are actually unlikely to be residents of the city, even if the facility is located within the city boundaries. The California Election Code §2025 expressly states that “a person does not gain or lose a domicile solely by reason of his or her presence or absence from a place while… kept in an almshouse, asylum or prison.” So people who are incarcerated and eligible to vote actually vote by absentee ballot at their home address. In some cases their home address could be in the city where they are incarcerated, and then yes, they should have access to a ballot with city-wide offices.