The City of McAlester illustrates how prison gerrymandering skews representation in Oklahoma.

by Aleks Kajstura, November 8, 2016

Just in time for this election day, Kate Carlton Greer of KOSU reminds us that not all votes end up equal when mass incarceration meets outdated redistricting practices.

Her reporting gives a great overview of how prison gerrymandering dismantles our democracy’s bedrock principle of “one person, one vote” in Oklahoma.

After finishing up work at the airplane manufacturing plant where Robert Karr has worked for more than three decades, the McAlester city councilman drives his pickup truck around the town’s 4th ward. …

The Oklahoma State Penitentiary sits in Karr’s ward. But it’s not the only prison here. The Jackie Brannon Correctional Center is another block away. And those prisoners — all 1,500 or so — are technically Karr’’s constituents.

Instead of 3,000 constituents, Karr now represents around 1,300. His ward is less than half the size of others in the city, so his vote on the city council is actually more powerful.

It might not be such a big deal in local politics, but Karr worries about the implications on a larger scale.

“When you’re more powerful than a local city like a state representative or something, or a United States representative, it really wouldn’t be fair with somebody like that,” Karr says.

“If you count a few people in the wrong place, that’s not ideal,” says Aleks Kajstura with the Prison Policy Initiative…. But as incarceration rates have grown, Kajstura says equal representation has become harder to maintain.

Read or listen to the whole story here.

Race for Rhode Island state House district shows how incarcerated people only count as constituents at redistricting time.

by Aleks Kajstura, November 7, 2016

A weekend local news story from Rhode Island gives a great illustration of prison gerrymandering in action:

This year, the policy has a direct impact on the high-profile race between Mattiello and Frias, which will determine whether the Cranston Democrat remains speaker of the House, arguably the most powerful political position in Rhode Island.

Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and his Republican challenger Steven Frias have fewer doors to knock on than their peers this election season because upwards of a thousand of their constituents don’t have doors at all – they live behind bars.

The two candidates “are competing for voters in a smaller pool than in all but one other district in Rhode Island,” John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island….”

Every district is supposed to have equal population, to ensure that each representative represents an equal number of constituents. But people who are incarcerated in Rhode Island are counted in the district where the prison is located, rather than for their own representative.

Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU explained:

… inmates convicted of felonies cannot legally vote in Rhode Island, and only those awaiting trial or serving time for misdemeanors can exercise the right while behind bars. As for inmates who can vote, the law states that they must cast absentee ballots in their hometowns of origin, which aren’t necessarily the same as the districts the [prison complex] lies in.

So it’s understandable that when asked about prison gerrymandering, Frias said: “I’m focused on the residents that can vote in our district”. The two candidates don’t consider the people incarcerated in their district as constituents at election time, but whoever wins the race will get to claim these very same people as constituents when drawing district lines. That is not how representative democracy is supposed to work; it’s time Rhode Island follow four other states and end prison gerrymandering now.

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