Every ten years, the federal government conducts a mass head count (or what’s more formally known as the census). And every ten years, thousands of people are counted not in their homes, but rather where their prisons are located — a major distortion of democracy that persists today.
Why is it undemocratic? Well, most importantly, census numbers are used to determine districting and distribution of Congressional seats. With the U.S currently incarcerating well over two million people — including nearly 100,000 in New York alone — rural upstate counties that otherwise wouldn’t qualify for a seat in the Senate are suddenly finding themselves “populated” with thousands of inmates. Meanwhile, the communities where prisoners come from (which tend to be heavily urban and poor) are losing political clout.
There’s growing momentum from some lawmakers and political figures to change this system, and a recent decision by the Census Bureau has helped their case. Still, though, we’ve got a long way to go.
Take a state like New York. Because state senate seats are determined by population count, sparsely populated areas (where prisons are located) get a huge boost from the local prison population, often enough to allow an area its own representative, though without prisoners there wouldn’t be one. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are seven such districts in upstate New York–ones that would not meet federal minimum population standards, requiring districts to be redrawn state-wide. In practice, historically, this has meant that prisoners (who incidentally can’t vote) have been counted to help support the installment of people who often don’t represent their best interests and those who, incidentally, tend to support a more prison-heavy model of criminal justice.
Now, though, New York is considering changing the law. And you can show your support for this change by signing the petition below.
At a City Hall gathering last week, Al Sharpton called the census miscounts the “voters’ rights and civil rights issue of this year.” With several law makers, Mayor Bloomberg, and community activists agreeing with him, 2010 could be the year that it all changes. In particular, because the Census has agreed to offer states data on the number and location of prisoners more speedily this year, states are better positioned than ever to determine how to fairly determine representation for people behind bars.
Of course, this movement isn’t without resistance. Elizabeth O’C Little, a state senator from the 45th district believes prisoners should be counted where they are housed. She compares inmates to college students living in dorms, ignoring the fact that prisoners have no say in their location and can’t vote. But it’s easy to understand why Little objects: She, and others representatives like her, benefit from the status quo. With 13 prisons and over 13,000 inmates in her district, if the way New York counted prisoners changed, Little may be out of a job. The communities from which these men and women hail, however, would see a better representation of their own interests — as it should be.
Many of those who oppose New York’s pending legislation are using the threat of losing federal funds to gain supporters. The fact is, though, the legislation being advocated would in no way affect how the state allocates such funds. What’s more, the issue isn’t about pitting urban versus rural communities, as some critics would suggest. Distortions in democracy impact everyone. Is it fair for one rural community to get magnified political clout over another, simply because one happens to house a prison?
Today, we’re asking for your help to urge New York state lawmakers to do away with this rampant prison-based gerrymandering. Help make New York a leader on the issue by demanding that the makeup of the state’s government accurately reflect its citizens.
by Elizabeth Renter
Link to Article and Petition Here