June 26 - The federal Census counts state and federal prisoners as part of the local population, and that creates big problems for democracy in Pennsylvania, charges a new report by the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative. The report explains that the Census Bureau wants states to use its decennial population counts to draw legislative districts, but the Census Bureau's method of counting prisoners as residents of the prison location violates state law. Crediting prisoners to the prison towns leads to unequal distributions of political power.
Pennsylvania bars people in prison from voting, but state law says that "no individual who is confined in a penal institution shall be deemed a resident of the election district where the institution is located." Legislative districts must be updated each decade to ensure that each district contains the same number of residents. Unfortunately, the state relies on flawed Census Bureau counts, which ignore state law on residence, to draw its legislative districts.
The report found that 40% of the state's prisoners are from Philadelphia, but 99% of the state's prison cells are located outside of the city. The result is 8 rural House districts that meet minimum population requirements only because prison inmates are included in the count. By using Census Bureau counts of prison populations to pad out rural legislative districts, Pennsylvania is inflating the votes of residents who live near prisons in violation of the Supreme Court's "one person one vote" rule.
"How the Census counts people in prison is a little understood or noticed problem," said Wagner, "but it's important that the public know how the Census is diluting their votes." The report suggests several reforms, including the Census Bureau changing its methodology and the state adjusting Census data before redistricting. The next Census will take place in 2010, and redistricting shortly thereafter. "If Pennsylvania and other states facing this problem don't fix it now, they'll have to wait until 2020 to draw fair districts," says Wagner.
The report, "Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Pennsylvania", is available at http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/pennsylvania/