Cities of Anamosa, Berlin, and Clarinda change form of government to avoid prison gerrymandering

by Bernadette Rabuy, January 27, 2015

In this decade, we have seen increasingly more municipalities and counties take the necessary steps to actively avoid prison gerrymandering. While most places avoid prison gerrymandering by adjusting Census Bureau data to draw districts that exclude prison populations, some small cities with large prisons have avoided prison gerrymandering by changing their form of government. For example, the cities of Berlin in New Hampshire and Anamosa and Clarinda in Iowa have moved from electing their representatives from wards (the name for their local government districts) to an at-large election system. By doing so, they addressed two pressing problems at once: unequal representation caused by prison gerrymandering and a lack of candidates for city council positions.

Previously, Anamosa and Clarinda were some of the most dramatic examples of prison gerrymandering in the country. The situation in Anamosa was so acute that the city got national attention in 2008 when there were no candidates for city council, resulting in a city resident being elected to the Anamosa City Council with just two write-in votes (neither of them his). Unfortunately for Anamosa, the state of Iowa is one of a handful of states in which state law requires the use of federal Census data for city redistricting even though the Census Bureau tabulates incarcerated people in a way that is incompatible with other parts of state law. The Census Bureau tabulates incarcerated people as if they were residents of the location of the correctional facility, but that’s at odds with Iowa law that states that a residence is “a fixed or permanent abode or habitation to which the party, when absent, intends to return.” A prison does not fit this definition because incarcerated people do not intend to live at the prison and certainly do not intend to return there “when absent.” The Anamosa City Council felt that the only way to avoid prison gerrymandering was to get rid of its wards.

A few years ago, Clarinda residents, led by Charlie Richardson, also voted to get rid of their ward system when a councilman was forced to resign from the council when he moved to another ward. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but Clarinda was already having a difficult time finding individuals interested in serving on the council. Richardson thought that it was an even worse situation “when you have an experienced council person that would have to resign because of moving” so he started gathering petition signatures, and, in November 2012, the move to at-large elections appeared on the ballot.

Beyond Clarinda’s private struggles recruiting council candidates, the prison in Clarinda clearly skewed voter representation. While each of Clarinda’s three wards had approximately 1,800 residents on paper, the north ward was home to the Clarinda Correctional Facility where approximately 1,000 individuals confined in that facility constituted 50% of the ward’s population. An individual living in the north ward had twice the political clout of people in any other ward.

As Clarinda Mayor Gordon Kokenge told the Clarinda Herald Journal, “It’s just staggering how much the numbers have gone down on eligible voters on that end of town. What this thing really does is it just puts a balance back into it for everybody in the community.” Unsurprisingly, Clarinda residents voted for an at-large system.

The city of Berlin, New Hampshire faced a similar situation in 2011 when it was considering a redistricting plan that would have moved a councilor from ward three — the ward that had the state prison — to another ward. Not only would this have forced the ward three councilor to either resign or run against an existing candidate, but it was also likely that Berlin would have had difficulty filling the newly open spot. Councilor Diana Nelson told the Berlin Daily Sun that transitioning to an at-large election system might be an effective solution to attract qualified candidates from throughout the city. The councilors also realized that an at-large system could be the answer to the problem they were going to face when the new federal prison opened in a year. Counting the federal prison population — which was expected to be 2,000 people — as residents could have led to a prison gerrymandering situation four times as bad as the one that already existed due to the state prison. As Berlin’s mayor told the press, the wards were less essential than they had been in the past. He said the city’s political structure was set up back when Berlin had a much larger population and “was divided into separate ethnic neighborhoods.” Berlin voters agreed and overwhelmingly voted in favor of changing to an at-large system.

In contrast to these three cities, many communities in the country are moving the other way, from at-large systems to districts, because districts are often a better way to elect representatives and protect minority voting rights. But these three cities are all relatively small (with populations under 10,000) and, as Clarinda’s Richardson told the local newspaper, Clarinda is a rural area with no “great concentration of race, nationality, age or economic well being.”1

As we can see from these three cities, there are plenty of ways to avoid prison gerrymandering, including eliminating the prison count from the Census data or even eliminating districts as Berlin, NH and the two cities in Iowa did. And speaking of Iowa, I’ve now got my eye on Mount Pleasant, Iowa, which is currently the worst example of prison gerrymandering in the state. That city has a ward where almost half (42%) of one ward’s “residents” are actually people incarcerated at Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility. Will Mount Pleasant follow in the direction of Clarinda, Anamosa, and Berlin and say goodbye to phantom constituents? Only time will tell.

  1. Further, at-large election systems can be implemented alongside alternative voting systems — such as cumulative voting or limited voting — in order to better provide representation to minority communities with strong preferences. For more information on alternative voting systems, see:  ↩

Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights urges supporting Census Bureau's efforts to end prison gerrymandering

by Aleks Kajstura, January 13, 2015

To mark the start of the 114th Congress, the The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights recently sent their list of executive and legislative priorities to the White House, federal agencies, and the House and Senate.

The priorities include supporting the Census Bureau’s efforts to end prison gerrymandering:

Support sufficient funding to ensure thorough testing and planning for the 2020 Census. This should include ensuring that operational and technological innovations designed to contain overall census costs are robust and address the persistent disproportionate undercount of populations of color and other historically harder-to-count population groups, such as immigrants, people with disabilities, young children, and rural and low-income households, as well as prison gerrymandering and other design and policy issues that affect a fair and accurate census.

Connecticut-based organizations call on the legislature to finally end prison gerrymandering this upcoming session

by Aleks Kajstura, January 7, 2015

Yesterday, Connecticut-based organizations called on the legislature to finally end prison gerrymandering in this upcoming session:

January 6, 2015

Senator Eric Coleman
Co-chair, Joint Committee on Judiciary 
Legislative Office Building, Room 2500
Hartford, CT 06106-1591
   Representative William Tong
Co-chair, Joint Committee on Judiciary
Legislative Office Building, Room 2502
Hartford, CT 06106-1591

Dear Senator Coleman and Representative Tong,

We, the undersigned Connecticut-based organizations, urge the legislature to pass legislation to end “prison gerrymandering.” Currently, the state allows the Census Bureau’s method of counting incarcerated populations to skew the redistricting process, undermining the principle of “one person, one vote.”

The Census Bureau tabulates incarcerated people at prison locations, rather than in the home communities they come from and to which the vast majority will return. When Connecticut uses unadjusted Census Bureau data to draw electoral districts, voters who live in districts that contain prisons are granted undue additional political clout, and the votes cast by residents everywhere else are diluted.

Connecticut law directly conflicts with how the Census Bureau counts people in prison: “No person shall be deemed to have lost his residence in any town by reason of his absence therefrom in any institution maintained by the state.” (Sec. 9-14.) Furthermore, 28% of the people incarcerated in Connecticut retain their right to vote because they have not been convicted of a felony. Connecticut law requires people who vote from prison to vote absentee as residents of their home districts, never from the prison districts. (Sec. 9-14a).

Prison gerrymandering has a dramatic impact on Connecticut’s democracy in general, and the voting strength of communities of color in particular. There are almost enough people incarcerated in Connecticut prisons alone to constitute an entire state house district. The prison population in Connecticut is disproportionately (73%) African-American and Latino but the Census Bureau credits most of the prison population to five majority-White towns that have large prisons. Using this flawed data to draw electoral districts serves to enhance the weight of a vote cast in those majority-White towns and dilutes the votes of everyone else in the state.

The Connecticut legislature should join New York, Maryland, Delaware and California in passing legislation to protect our democracy from the Census Bureau’s flawed prison counts. We note that the towns of Enfield and Cheshire already reject prison gerrymandering when drawing town council districts, and it’s time for our state legislature to follow their lead.

We urge you to act quickly to avoid the risk that yet another legislative redistricting cycle will take place with almost 17,000 Connecticut residents unnecessarily counted in the wrong place.

We thank you for your attention to this important matter.


A Better Way Foundation
ACLU of Connecticut
Career Resources, Inc.
Common Cause Connecticut
Community Partners in Action
Connecticut National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
CT Citizen Action Group
League of Women Voters of Connecticut
National Association of Social Workers – Connecticut (NASW-CT)

Stay Informed

Get the latest updates:

Share on 𝕏 Donate