Prisoners in the Census skew county government

Peter Wagner
(413) 527-0845

July 18 - The federal Census counts state and federal prisoners as part of the local population, and that creates big problems for county government, charges a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative. The report explains that the Census Bureau wants New York county governments to use its data but counts prisoners as residents of the prison location, which violates the New York State Constitution. Counting prisoners as residents, despite the fact that they can't vote or participate in the communities where they are incarcerated, leads to unequal distributions of political power.

"This Census glitch creates big problems for counties," says report lead author Peter Wagner, the Executive Director of the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative. "New York counties with prisons are faced with a tough choice: adjust the data, or rely on the Census and draw unfair districts based on faulty numbers."

The report, Phantom constituents in the Empire State: How outdated Census Bureau methodology burdens New York counties, examines how the 31 New York counties with prisons handle the flawed data, commending 13 counties that adjust the census to prevent equal representation from being damaged. The report is the first to analyze local governments' response to the inaccurate Census data and to measure the dilution of voting power within each county in the state.

The report finds five counties - Chautauqua, Livingston, Oneida, Madison, and St. Lawrence - where relying on faulty Census data created districts that were at least 20% prisoners. In such a district, every group of 8 residents has the same voting power as 10 residents in other districts. Some counties have even larger vote dilution problems. For example, 62% of the people counted by the Census in Groveland are incarcerated, giving every group of 4 residents in Groveland the same say over county affairs as 10 residents elsewhere in the county.

Essex County, one of the counties excluding prisoners during redistricting, has declared that prisoners "live in a separate environment, do not participate in the life of Essex County, and do not affect the social and economic character of the towns" where they are incarcerated, and therefore should not be counted as residents.

"How the Census counts people in prison is a rarely-noticed problem," said Wagner, "but it's important that the public know how the Census is diluting their votes." The authors are optimistic that change is possible, suggesting several reforms, including the Census Bureau reforming its methodology or individual counties adjusting Census data before redistricting. Wagner explained, "With only one exception nationwide, every time a community learns that prison populations are distorting their access to local government, the legislature has reversed course and redrawn districts based on actual population, not the Census Bureau's mistakes."


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