I need your help. Prison gerrymandering gives extra political power to legislators who have prisons in their districts. We put numbers on the problem and sparked a movement to protect our democratic process from the overgrown prison system.

Can you help us continue the fight? Thank you.

—Peter Wagner, Executive Director
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Interview with Heather Villanueva of More Equitable Democracy about their successful campaign to end prison gerrymandering in Washington state

How a focus on accurate data and on Native communities helped end prison gerrymandering in Washington State.

by Aleks Kajstura, December 2, 2019

Prison Policy Initiative Legal Director Aleks Kajstura sat down with Heather Villanueva, Deputy Director of More Equitable Democracy to discuss their recent win in Washington that made that state the 5th to end the practice of giving extra political representation to the legislative districts that host prisons. (Shortly after Washington’s bill became law, Nevada became the 6th state to pass this legislation.)

Aleks:

Can you tell us a little about More Equitable Democracy and how fixing the Census Bureau’s prison miscount fit into its mission?

Heather:

More Equitable Democracy is a nonprofit advocacy organization working at the intersection of racial justice and democracy reform. One of the things we are concerned about is the basic building blocks of redistricting: the Census. Right now the census is coming up and facing quite a few serious financial and logistical challenges. A compromised Census will have serious implications for communities of color and for fair political representation. One of our priorities is to bridge our traditional push for full participation in the census count with larger policy goals of redistricting and redistricting reform.

For More Equitable Democracy, we tend to take a bigger view than just redistricting reform because we want to see bigger changes than just who draws the lines. It’s really about how the whole system of elections is created to either lift up some voices or to silence and put significant barriers in front of others. We’re really interested in developing new ways to build strong coalitions of reformers — and people of color in particular — to really transform our democracy.

Aleks:

You are a new organization working in a number of states on a number of issues and the Washington bill to end prison gerrymandering was one of your first victories. How did you pick this bill to work on?

Heather:

More Equitable Democracy seeks to make structural improvements to democracy and we identified Washington as one of a handful of states where we think we can make the biggest impact. As we considered what issues to prioritize in Washington, we knew that prison gerrymandering reform was gaining traction nationally, but had not been pursued in Washington. So when we saw legislative interest in ending prison gerrymandering, we knew it was an important issue and one that would be a great fit for our other democracy reform efforts in the state, including ranked choice voting, and securing $15 million for community-based census outreach to support an accurate count.

Aleks:

In the past, we’ve talked about how Washington has fewer clusters or large prisons than states like New York and Maryland where the vote dilutive impact of prison gerrymandering is quite stark. Can you tell me why you thought it important to focus on prison gerrymandering even in states like Washington where the numerical impact is not as extreme?

Heather:

That’s right, judging by the numbers, the prison gerrymandering problem in Washington State could be viewed as relatively minor. But the state draws its districts with far greater population equality than most, so Washington was a good place to focus on improving the accuracy of the redistricting data. As you know, what is important about the Census and redistricting is not just that everyone is counted, but where they are counted.

Beyond the simple calculations of vote dilution, we thought it was important to highlight the unique harms on Native American communities. I’m glad that we could help provide a platform for voices from these often overlooked communities, and I thought that the testimony of Patricia Whitefoot of the Yakama Nation was particularly effective raising the harm caused by counting their disproportionately incarcerated members in western Washington prisons rather than in their homes on the Yakama Reservation and discussing how this overlapped with other harmful redistricting decisions.

Aleks:

Ending prison gerrymandering is the rare kind of reform that can benefit almost everyone in the state in one way or another. About the only people who have nothing to gain from reform are the people who live immediately adjacent to the state’s largest prison. Sometimes, though, reform efforts get hijacked by the false myth that changing electoral data will impact funding received by rural communities, and the effort stalls when faced with so much false urban vs rural tension. I’m really impressed that Washington (and Nevada) managed to pass this legislation in just one session, whereas other states have struggled for years. What do you think that folks in other states should see as keys to your success?

Heather:

I think getting the bill passed was a combination of making the right choices at the start and then a lot of hard work.

It probably helped us that legislators were fairly new to the issue of prison gerrymandering, so we were able to keep ahead of any misinformation before it became entrenched.

We also used some messaging that was pretty different than that used in New York and Maryland and in other states. Rather than talk about stopping “gerrymandering” we focused on improving the accuracy of the data. In fact “ensuring accurate redistricting” became the bill’s tagline.

Focusing on data accuracy made a lot of sense in Washington State because we didn’t have the New York-style big numerical impact of prison gerrymandering with the obvious inequality and immediate impact on outcomes. In addition, focusing on “accurate redistricting” allowed us to avoid the political squabbling that “gerrymandering” conversations often illicit and instead start and end with something that everyone agrees on: the idea that the underlying data should be accurate.

This accuracy framework was also a natural fit with our organizational quest for structural reforms for a better democracy. As an organization, More Equitable Democracy does not just focus on what happens when the maps are drawn, we look at the entire process from the bottom up.

Aleks:

That’s a good point. I know you chose that strategy because you thought it was best for the state of Washington, but this accuracy framing will be really important for the Census Bureau to hear when they review the issue again for the 2030 Census. And speaking of the Census Bureau, that now six states have chosen to fix this flaw in the Census, it really increases the pressure on the Bureau to provide a national solution.

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