New law, sponsored by Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross, ensures people in state prison are counted for redistricting at the same place they vote.
July 5, 2023
On Friday, Maine Governor Janet Mills signed LD 1704/HP 1093 into law, officially ending prison gerrymandering in state legislative districts by counting incarcerated people at their home addresses for redistricting purposes. With this measure, sponsored by Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross, Maine is one of 18 states that have addressed this issue to create fairer legislative representation.
Prison gerrymandering is a problem created by the Census Bureau counting incarcerated people as residents of their prison cells rather than in their home communities during the decennial count. This practice artificially inflates the populations of areas that contain prisons, giving these areas additional political clout when state and local governments use this Census data to draw new district lines every ten years. Reforms, like Maine’s, allow state officials to adjust their redistricting data to count people in prison at their pre-incarceration address, giving a more accurate picture of the area’s population and more equal representation in government.
This victory in Maine is particularly noteworthy as the state is one of two that allows people in prison to vote. People in Maine prisons register and vote at their pre-incarceration address. The reform signed last week aligns the state’s redistricting laws with these voting laws.
The new law also ensures that redistricting data reflects the community ties of incarcerated people. While someone may be incarcerated away from home on Census Day, they remain a member of their home communities. In fact, for most people who are away from home for long times, the Census Bureau recognizes the importance of family and community ties and counts them at home (e.g., truck drivers, boarding school students, members of Congress, military personnel) but fails to apply the same rules to incarcerated people. Maine has just ensured that incarcerated people and communities hit hardest by mass incarceration are treated the same as everyone else for redistricting purposes.
“Maine is the latest state to reject the flawed way that the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people,” said Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. “This measure is another piece of evidence of the growing consensus among the states on prison gerrymandering. One big question remains: will the Census Bureau listen to these states and change how it counts incarcerated people, or will it stubbornly dig in its heels and continue to force governments to modify redistricting data to make it usable?”
While it may seem like the 2030 Census is a long time from now, by passing this legislation this year, Maine will have enough time to collect the data necessary to ensure it can successfully count incarcerated people at their homes during its next redistricting period, a practice other states considering this reform should follow.
Roughly half the country now lives in a place that has addressed prison gerrymandering, with more than 200 local governments and 17 states tackling the issue. Progress on this issue has been so rapid that the National Conference of State Legislatures, a strictly bipartisan organization that assists state lawmakers on policy issues, recently called state efforts to end prison gerrymandering “the fastest-growing trend in redistricting.”