Rhode Island candidates race to represent phantom constituents

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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