New York Times editorial: proposed residence rules “a rejection of common sense”

The New York Times editorial board summarizes the problem of prison gerrymandering and explains why the Census Bureau must take action.

by Alison Walsh, July 18, 2016

The Census Bureau’s proposal to continue counting incarcerated people as “residents” of prison locations, rather than at their home addresses, has drawn widespread opposition.

We can now add the Editorial Board of The New York Times to the list of those voicing dissent.

In “The Wrong Way to Count Prisoners,” the Editorial Board summarizes the problem of prison gerrymandering.

Counting inmates this way allows legislators who draw electoral lines to inflate the power of certain areas with “constituents” who have been stripped of the right to vote and have no interaction with the larger community.

The editorial also cites the recent decision in Cranston, Rhode Island, as evidence that counting people where they are temporarily incarcerated is unconstitutional.

The federal courts have recently begun to see this gerrymandering as a threat to electoral fairness. In May, for example, a United States District Court held that the city of Cranston, R.I., had violated the principle of one person one vote by deeming inmates at a correctional facility “residents” for the drawing of district lines for the City Council and the local school committee.

The court rightly found that the inmates who made up about 25 percent of Cranston’s Ward 6 were not true constituents. According to court documents, their median length of stay was only 99 days, which can in no way be seen as permanent residency. Those convicted of felonies were barred from voting. And inmates held for reasons other than a felony conviction, the court pointed out, were able to vote — but only by absentee ballot based on their addresses before incarceration. This meant that every seven voters in Ward 6 had the same political power as 10 voters in the city’s other wards.

While a few states have outlawed prison gerrymandering on their own, responsibility for ending the practice permanently and nationally lies with the Census Bureau.

Some states can prevent prison-based gerrymandering by simply counting incarcerated people at their home addresses. But according to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, some states are prohibited by law from adjusting census data when drawing district lines. In other words, the principle of one person one vote will continue to suffer until the Census Bureau changes the way it counts prisoners.

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