Changes to federal race & ethnicity standards give states an opportunity to improve data for prison gerrymandering reform

States should consider new race and ethnicity standards when preparing to implement prison gerrymandering reform in the 2030 redistricting cycle

by Danielle Squillante, April 29, 2024

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently announced changes to how federal agencies will collect race and ethnicity data, the first change to these rules since 1997. We and other civil rights groups welcomed these changes because they will present a more nuanced and accurate depiction of the racial and ethnic diversity of the country. The Census Bureau will be following these new standards for the 2030 Census, and so these changes should also prompt states — both those that have ended prison gerrymandering and those that are considering taking that step — to change how they track race and ethnicity data for people in their prisons.


What are the changes and why do they matter?

The new rules do two primary things to the Census count:

  • Combine race and ethnicity categories into one question: This better aligns with the way people identify themselves — for example, it gives people the option to choose Latino or Hispanic as a racial category, rather than just ethnicity.
  • Add Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) as a new racial category: Previously people of Middle Eastern or North African descent were aggregated into the white category against their wishes.


How will this impact prison gerrymandering reforms in states?

These changes present some challenges — and opportunities — for states that have ended, or are considering ending, prison gerrymandering.

Prison gerrymandering is a problem the Census Bureau created by counting incarcerated people as residents of their prison cells rather than in their home communities. This artificially inflates the populations of areas that contain prisons, giving them additional political clout when state and local governments use this Census data to draw new district lines every ten years. In states that have ended prison gerrymandering, state officials 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.

To address prison gerrymandering, states take the data provided by the Census Bureau and cross-reference it against data collected by their Department of Corrections to reallocate incarcerated people back to their home communities before they draw new political boundaries. Importantly, when drawing these new maps, they not only consider the number of people in a district, but also who the residents of that area are. This is largely to comply with state and federal Voting Rights Acts and constitutional protections to ensure the ability of Black communities — and other racial and ethnic groups — to elect representatives of their choice.

In an ideal world, states and the Census Bureau would track race and ethnicity data in the same way. It would make it easier and more efficient for states to match Census data to their state data when adjusting redistricting data counting incarcerated people in their home communities. However, as the National Conference of State Legislatures reported last year, that’s not the case. Of the states that ended prison gerrymandering after the 2020 redistricting cycle, only one state’s Department of Corrections used the same race and ethnicity categories as the Census Bureau.

States that currently track race and ethnicity differently than the Census Bureau, will still have to do the work to make their data and the Bureau’s data compatible. However, these states should consider these Census changes as an opportunity to improve their data collection and make it more compatible with the Bureau’s data. Here’s how:

  • States should reform how they collect race and ethnicity data to conform with the updated Office of Management and Budget standards to make comparing data easier for reallocation purposes;
  • States should provide opportunities for incarcerated people to self-report race and ethnicity data whenever possible to ensure accuracy in the data they collect. When that is not possible, at the very least the Department of Correction should disclose how that data is collected.

Regardless, these new standards do not stand in the way of ending prison gerrymandering.

Roughly half of all U.S. residents now live in a city, county, or state that has ended prison gerrymandering, with more almost certain to join them before the 2030 redistricting cycle. That raises the important question: Instead of forcing states to keep up with the Bureau’s changing data collection and reporting, why not finally change how it counts incarcerated people in 2030?

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