For the first time ever, Tennessee counties can avoid prison gerrymandering
A change to state law frees counties to draw districts that truly represent the residents of their communities.
by Mike Wessler, November 4, 2021
For county governments, the practice of redrawing district lines every ten years is usually a fairly routine process. You get the new data, examine it, and make minor tweaks to districts based on where your population grew and where it shrank. This year, though, thanks to a change in state law, counties in Tennessee have, for the first time, an opportunity to make their districts fairer and more representative by ending prison gerrymandering.
Most states leave it up to local governments to decide whether to include prison populations when drawing their district lines. However, Tennessee was one of just a handful of states that previously explicitly prohibited counties from cutting the prisons out of their local data when they redistrict. This prohibition, combined with a prison-building boom in rural areas, resulted in huge distortions created by prison gerrymandering.
This electoral inequality was particularly acute in Trousdale County, a community with fewer than 8,000 residents located northeast of Nashville. When it looked to redraw its districts after the last census, it discovered that the recently built prison, which locked up more than 2,500 people from all corners of the state, had been included in the census data for the county. This data made it impossible to draw fair and equal districts that complied with the requirements of its county charter. And because state law at that time required them to include the population of people who are incarcerated when they draw district lines, the community was stuck.
State Senator Ferrell Hailie (R) told the Hartville Vidette, “The situation (Trousdale) has, with a small population and a prison with a large population, really created a problem.”
Trousdale looked to state lawmakers for help. Sen. Hailie brought forward legislation to amend state law to give counties the option to exclude people who are incarcerated when drawing district lines. It freed them to end prison gerrymandering for the first time. In 2016, the measure received wide bipartisan support, passed unanimously in the Senate, and was signed into law.
This new law doesn’t just apply to Trousdale. Upon its passage, Sen. Hailie told the Hartville Vidette, “This will help other counties as well.”
Many counties in Tennessee can benefit from the new law’s flexibility. After the 2010 census, Tennessee was home to some of the districts most severely distorted by prison gerrymandering, giving residents who live in the same district as a prison significantly more political representation than their neighbors. For example, a prison accounts for 87% of the population of a district in Lake County. That means 13 actual residents who live in the same district as the prison have as much political clout as 100 residents living in a district without a prison.
|County||Total Population||Incarcerated Population||Prison population as percent of a single district|
Counties throughout Tennessee have already begun the process of drawing new districts for the next decade, and at least 7 of them have already committed to ending prison gerrymandering:
- Trousdale County
- Knox County
- Hardeman County
- Rutherford County
- Giles County
- Morgan County
- Johnson County
There is still time for more counties to join this list.
To do so, a county must pass a resolution indicating its desire to end prison gerrymandering, and submit it to the Tennessee Comptroller. The Comptroller’s Office has drafted a sample resolution to help counties that want to take this important step. Counties need to act fast, because by state law, they must complete their redistricting process by January 1, 2022.
City and county governments often feel the most significant distortive impacts of prison gerrymandering. This year, though, Tennessee local governments finally have the opportunity to address this distortion and draw districts that truly represent the residents of their communities.