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Prison gerrymandering gives extra political power to legislators who have prisons in their districts. We put numbers on the problem and sparked a movement to protect our democratic process from the overgrown prison system.

Can you help us continue the fight? All gifts made this year will be automatically matched by other donors. Thank you.

Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

Wisconsin

Problems

When legislators rely on the Census Bureau's prison counts to draw legislative districts, they unintentionally give extra representation to the districts that contain prisons and dilute the votes of everyone else. It's called "prison gerrymandering." It plays out in Wisconsin on two levels:

  • Wisconsin engages in prison gerrymandering for state legislative districts.
  • Wisconsin counties and cities provide some of the most dramatic instances of prison gerrymandering in the nation.

Prison gerrymandering violates the constitutional principle of "one person, one vote." The Supreme Court requires districts to be based on equal population in order to give each resident the same access to government. But a longstanding flaw in the Census counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison location, even though they cannot vote and are not a part of the surrounding community. Wisconsin law considers incarcerated people to be residents of their home addresses: a person's residence is determined by "where the person's habitation is fixed, without any present intent to move, and to which, when absent, the person intends to return." (Wis. Stat. § 6.10) Since most incarcerated people intend to leave prison and do not intend to return, prison is not their residence. Using the Census Bureau's prison count data for redistricting purposes is inconsistent with Wisconsin's residence law.

Impact at the state level

  • In 2011, the legislature used 5,583 incarcerated people to pad out the population of District 53. Without the incarcerated populations, the district is 10% below the required size. This gives every 90 residents of the 53rd district the same influence as 100 residents of any other district in the state.
  • District 53 purports to have a large African-American population, larger than 74 other districts. But of the 2,784 African-Americans in the district, all but 590 are incarcerated. The day the people incarcerated in the district are allowed to vote again, they will be on a bus, heading back to their home district. The 53rd District is claiming populations that are not a part of this district and never will be.

Crediting all of Wisconsin's incarcerated people to a few locations enhances the political clout of the people who live near prisons, while diluting the voting power of the residents of all other districts in the state.

Impact at the county and municipal level

Because state law is read to require prison gerrymandering (70 Wis. Op. Atty. Gen. 80 (1981)), Wisconsin provides many dramatic examples of the problem:

  • 80% of a district in Juneau County is incarcerated. This gives every 20 residents of that district the same voting power as 100 residents of any other ward.
  • 75% of District 2 in Waupun County is incarcerated.
  • 62% of Adams County's Districts 13 and 5 are incarcerated.
  • 53% of a district in Juneau City is incarcerated.
  • 51% of Jackson County's District 12 is incarcerated.
  • We've also identified the vote dilutive problem of prison gerrymandering in 15 other Wisconsin cities and counties (Boscobel, Chippewa Falls, Elkhorn, Fitchburg, Franklin, and Racine cities and Chippewa, Columbia, Dodge, Fond du Lac, Racine, Sawyer, Sheboygan, Waushara, Winnebago counties)

Nevertheless, there are also a number of examples of communities successfully rejecting the Census Bureau's prison counts:

  • Six cities and counties avoided prison gerrymandering: the cities of Baraboo, New Lisbon, Portage, Prairie du Chien, and Stanley, and Crawford county.

Legislation in previous sessions

A state constitutional amendment had been previously introduced in both chambers to require the state and local governments to draw legislature districts on the basis of corrected Census Bureau data adjusted to exclude incarcerated people at their home addresses.

The amendment:

Local contacts in Wisconsin

It’s impossible to include everyone who is working toward fair districting in Wisconsin, but if you are looking to get involved, these are some of the people and organizations you might want to contact:

Endorsements

Fact sheets

A summary of the problem with an emphasis on legislative solutions for the state. Originally prepared for a Midwest Democracy Network conference in February 2013:

Fact sheets originally prepared in 2009:

Additional reading

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