Op-ed in Providence Journal supports ending prison gerrymandering, published the same day bill dies in House Judiciary Committee

by Aleks Kajstura, June 25, 2014

thumbnail of articleOn Saturday, the Providence Journal published an op-ed by Fred Ordoñez, executive director of Direct Action for Rights and Equality, calling on Rhode Island to end prison gerrymandering.

Ordoñez explained the severity of Rhode Island’s prison gerrymandering problem:

The concentration of all Rhode Island’s state prisons into just one location in the state makes the problem of prison gerrymandering in the state’s legislative districts more significant than in almost any other state. In most states, prison gerrymandering gives a small number of districts with prisons between 1 percent and 5 percent more political influence than is warranted by the number of actual residents of those districts.

Most states take such inequality seriously, and four states have already passed bills similar to the ones that were introduced in Rhode Island. And Rhode Island’s prison gerrymandering problem is larger than most; almost 15 percent of House District 20 is made up of incarcerated people from other parts of this state. This gives every group of 85 residents in this district the same influence as 100 residents in any other district.

Ending prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island would increase the voting strength of the 99.989 percent of the state’s residents who now have their votes diluted in at least one level of government (people who live closest to the prison get their votes inflated the most in City Council, House, and Senate districts).

When a bill was up for a vote in the Senate, senators representing the districts that contain the ACI were among those to cast their votes in support of the bill. Widespread support for a bill that would increase the voting strength of 99.989 percent of Rhode Island residents should not be surprising, but prison gerrymandering now has some powerful allies in the state. And unfortunately the bill faced an uphill battle in the House.

(Read the entire op-ed here.)

Unfortunately, the same day the op-ed was published the bill to end prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island, S 2286A, died in the House’s Judiciary Committee. But given the enthusiasm in the Senate, I’m sure the bill will be reintroduced again next session.

Rome, NY still has not redistricted after the 2010 Census, city fails to implement NY's law to end prison gerrymandering.

by Aleks Kajstura, June 23, 2014

Over 3 years after New York counties and cities were prohibited from engaging in prison gerrymandering, and prison-adjusted redistricting data was made available, the city of Rome is still stalling on redistricting.

The city continues to rely on wards that are padded with incarcerated populations, including people that were incarcerated at the now-closed Oneida Correctional Facility. Redistricting will be on the council’s agenda once again this week, but they’re holding out on implementing any potential plan until 2016.

That’s a long time to wait for democracy.

Analysis of voter registration and turnout is muddled by Census Bureau counting incarcerated people in the wrong place.

by Aleks Kajstura, June 18, 2014

How well does our nation do with voter turnout? Thanks to the Census Bureau, we may not really know. Voter registration and turnout are common metrics for gauging the health of our democracy, but the numbers are easily skewed by Census Bureau methodology that counts incarcerated people in the wrong place.

A recent report, Unequal Access: A County-by-County Analysis of Election Administration in Swing States in the 2012 Election, from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, used the Census’s population data to rank counties by the percentage of the county’s population that was registered to vote, and the percentage that actually turned out to vote.

The report based its numbers on CVAP (Census Voting Age Population); CVAP gives you a rough estimate of the number of folks eligible to vote. It seems like just the sort of number you’d want to judge your turnout against. But since the Census counts incarcerated people as if they are residents of the county where the correctional facility is located, things can go terribly wrong with the math.

DeKalb County, Missouri, for example is ranked as second-worst in the state for both voter registration and turnout. But that’s because roughly a quarter of the people the Census counted there were not actually residents of the county, but rather folks incarcerated at two state prisons that happened to be located there.

The people incarcerated in those prisons are very likely not residents of DeKalb, and therefore not eligible to vote in the county (whether or not they are disenfranchised by the state). Taking the prison populations into account when looking at the voter registration and turnout, the County’s numbers look much better (middle to top of the rankings).

The simplest solution for getting accurate election data would be for the Census Bureau to just count incarcerated people at home, where they reside. In the meantime, the best practice for researches is to use the Bureau’s group quarters data to adjust Census-reported population when doing voting analyses.

McAlester, Okla. inadvertently forced itself to engage in prison gerrymandering after the 2010 Census, is now seeking charter amendment to solve the problem.

by Aleks Kajstura, June 18, 2014

You may remember McAlester, Oklahoma, the city that historically avoided prison gerrymandering, but was reluctantly prison-gerrymandering its wards in 2011, having inadvertently bound themselves to do so in a recent charter amendment.

Today I’m pleased to report that McAlester is well on its way to solving the problem by revising its charter once again to allow the city to exclude incarcerated populations from the data the city uses to draw the city council wards. Just last week, the city council approved a resolution (Proposition V) that will put the charter change on the August ballot for voters’ approval.

The charter amendment will be up for a vote on August 26, hopefully I’ll be able to report back that McAlester residents chose to end prison gerrymandering once again in the city.

PPI Research Associate Sarah Hertel-Fernandez reports back from a hearing in a suit to protect the residents of Cranston, RI from prison gerrymandering.

by Sarah Hertel-Fernandez, June 16, 2014

Having recently returned to the office as a summer Research Associate, I have had the opportunity to reflect on my time as an intern last semester. Most of my time was spent in the office, but on a very rainy Wednesday in April, I accompanied the Prison Policy Initiative’s staff to Rhode Island to observe the hearing for Davidson vs. Cranston. Beyond being a welcome interruption my midterms at Smith College, it was a change to see both PPI and the broader legal system in action.

As I listened to Peter, Aleks, and Leah reviewing the case and the schedule for the day on the ride to Providence, I was reminded by each of them in turn that I could and should ask questions.

I had started my once-a-week internship in January 2014, and besides being a crash course in prison reform, it had been a continuous, continuing lesson in learning how to ask the right questions. Through a series of small research projects and the guidance of the staff, I’d been learning how to frame research projects, how to be flexible with that framework, and what goes into making that research presentable and compelling. When investigating the ways in which inequality is created and sustained, and imagining how more equitable systems might take their place, both existing problems and their possible solutions must be made clear to your audience.

The hearing illustrated the importance of how research is presented. The plaintiffs were not incarcerated individuals but rather residents from other wards whose voting power was diluted by prison gerrymandering. A statistic, calculated from Census Bureau data, was repeated by Adam Lioz, the lawyer for the plaintiffs from Demos: three voters from the district where the prison population was counted have a much voting power as four from another. It was framed as a violation of the “one person, one vote” principle of equal representation, skewing population data that is used to apportion that representation. When oral arguments must be so concise, presentation is vital.

It was a reminder to me that the damage done by the prison gerrymandering is not just visited upon the communities from which prisoners (and their voting power) are taken. It distorts our whole political landscape. It was a day of sidestepping puddles between the ACLU office and the courthouse, learning about the planning and collaboration that went into this lawsuit, and realizing once again the importance of this work in the company of people who work well together.

I’m grateful for this opportunity to continue working with PPI, and I know I will take what I learn wherever my academic and professional life takes me.

PPI and Demos in Cranston RI

Left to Right: Peter Wagner (Executive Director, PPI), Aleks Kajstura (Legal Director, PPI), Adam Lioz (Counsel, Demos), Brenda Wright (Vice President, Legal Strategies, Demos), Leah Sakala (Policy Analyst, PPI), Sarah Hertel-Fernandez (Research Associate, PPI).

League of Women Voters 2014 Convention included a panel on prison gerrymandering, PPI released new briefing packet.

by Aleks Kajstura, June 10, 2014

Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining three League of Women Voters members (from Virginia, Delaware, and California) and the Census Bureau’s redistricting data chief, Cathy McCully, on a caucus panel to talk about prison gerrymandering at the League of Women Voters’ 2014 Convention.

Our panel on prison gerrymandering covered the scope of the issue across the U.S., legislative and litigation efforts seeking to end prison gerrymandering, as well as the Census Bureau’s perspective on the problem.

I also used the panel as an opportunity to debut PPI’s new briefing packet on prison gerrymandering, check it out.

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