Prison-Based Gerrymandering Dilutes Blacks’ Voting Power

A new report concludes some majority-black legislative districts are penalized because of the way the census bureau counts their imprisoned residents.
By Emily Badger

Sixty-six percent of the inmates in the state of New York come from New York City. But 91 percent of them are incarcerated upstate, in communities where they have long been counted by the U.S. census.

On paper, this means prisoners belong not to the communities from which they’ve come (and to which they eventually will return), but to places where they can neither vote, check out a library book or attend a local school.

The counting quirk sounds like a quandary for demographers. But it also means, come gerrymandering time, that many urban black communities look smaller than they actually are, a disproportionate number of their residents having been counted in the rural areas that are home to penitentiaries.

Most states redraw political districts every 10 years using census data, and so this counting practice has the effect of increasing the political power of anyone who lives near a prison, while decreasing the power of the communities where prisoners legally reside.

Critics disdainfully call the practice “prison-based gerrymandering.”

During the 2000 census, 43,000 New York City residents were counted upstate in this way. Remove them, and seven state senate districts would not have met minimum population requirements and would have had to be redrawn, setting off a chain reaction throughout the state, according to a report released this week by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

This counting method “artificially inflates the population count — and thus, the political influence — of the districts where prisons and jails are located,” wrote the authors of the report, “Captive Constituents: Prison-Based Gerrymandering & The Distortion of Our Democracy.” “At the same time,” they add, “this practice reduces the political power of everyone else. The viability of our communities, integrity of our democracy and basic principles of equality suffer as a result.”

African-Americans comprise 12.7 percent of the U.S. population. But because they make up 41.3 percent of the federal and state prison population, this type of gerrymandering disproportionately affects black communities. Prisons are also often located in rural areas — non-metropolitan America houses 20 percent of the national population, but 60 percent of new prison construction, according to the report — further distorting political muscle.

“It is all too reminiscent,” the report says, “of the infamous ‘three-fifths compromise,’ whereby enslaved and disfranchised African Americans were counted to inflate the number of constituents – and thus, the political influence – of Southern states before the Civil War.”

The report also cites the Iowa town of Anamosa, which was divided in 2002 into four city council wards of about 1,370 people each. One ward, however, was home to a state penitentiary with 1,320 inmates. In effect, the district held only about 50 true constituents who had the same political representation as wards 45 times as large — a violation of the spirit of the Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” apportionment principle.

The census counts some other groups similarly: College students are recorded in their dorm rooms, not their parents’ homes, and military personnel are counted on base, not at their permanent residence. But both are integrated into the community — and can use its public services – in a way prisoners are not.

In total, about 2 million prisoners in the country are counted this way — enough people, according to the NAACP, to qualify by themselves for five votes in the Electoral College. And in 173 counties nationwide, the report adds, “half of the purported African-American population are not true residents, but are actually prisoners imported from elsewhere.”

The problem has grown with the rate of incarceration (the NAACP partly blames the “war on drugs”), and the Census Bureau for the first time this year is becoming attuned to it. The bureau will provide prisoner data to states following this spring’s decennial census in time for officials to use it in their 2010 redistricting. And this April, Maryland became the first state to pass legislation requiring redistricting officials to count inmates at their actual homes, using the new census data to identify them. Delaware is poised to follow next.

Some argue it doesn’t matter where we count inmates, because most states don’t let them vote. But the census counts everyone — including non-voting illegal immigrants and children — and we apportion political districts by total population, not just voting residents.

The NAACP points to the two states that do permit inmates to vote: Maine and Vermont. Both send prisoners absentee ballots from their home communities, a common-sense sign of where their political muscle would most logically be exercised.

Maryland enacts law to count incarcerated people at their home addresses

From: Prisoners of the Census

by Peter Wagner, April 13, 2010
First-in-nation law will improve fairness and accuracy of the Census data used for redistricting

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Peter Wagner, PPI, (413) 527-0845
Tim Rusch, Demos, 212 389-1407
Brenda Wright, Demos, 617 232 5885 ext. 13

April 13, 2010 – Today, Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law a bill ensuring that incarcerated persons will be counted as residents of their home addresses when new state and local legislative districts are drawn in Maryland.

The U.S. Census counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison location. When state and local government bodies use Census counts to draw legislative districts, they unintentionally enhance the weight of a vote cast in districts that contain prisons at the expense of all other districts in the state. Maryland is the first state to pledge to collect the home addresses of incarcerated people and correct the data state-wide.

The new law will help Maryland correct past distortions in representation caused by counting incarcerated persons as residents of prisons, such as the following:

* 18% of the population currently credited to House of Delegates District 2B (near Hagerstown) is actually incarcerated people from other parts of the state. In effect, by using uncorrected Census data to draw legislative districts, the legislature granted every group of 82 residents in this districts as much political influence as 100 residents of every other district.
* In Somerset County, a large prison is 64% of the 1st County Commission District, giving each resident in that district 2.7 times as much influence as residents in other districts. Even more troubling is that by including the prison population as “residents” in county districts, the county has been unable to draw an effective majority-African American district and has had no African-American elected to county government, despite settlement of a vote dilution lawsuit in the 1980s.

The problem is national as well. One legislative district in New York includes 7% prisoners; a legislative district in Texas includes 12% prisoners; and 15% of one Montana district are prisoners imported from other parts of the state. Indeed, the 2010 Census will find five times as many people in prison as it did just three decades ago. To address this problem, eight other states have similar bills pending in the current session or being prepared for reintroduction in the next legislative session: Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.

“The Maryland legislature has taken a much-needed step to ensure fairness in redistricting and reflect incarcerated populations in a more accurate way. Maryland’s action should pave the way for other states to end the distortions caused by counting incarcerated persons in the wrong place,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative.

“Maryland’s ‘No Representation without Population’ Act will bring the state’s redistricting practices in line with the rules Maryland uses for determining legal residence of incarcerated persons for other purposes. We applaud this common-sense solution to a growing problem of fairness in representation,” said Brenda Wright, Director of the Democracy Program at Demos.

The legislation, passed as H.B. 496 and S.B.400, applies only to redistricting and would not affect federal funding distributions.

The Prison Policy Initiative and Demos have a national project to end prison-based gerrymandering, seeking to change how the U.S. Census counts incarcerated people and how states and local governments use prison counts when drawing districts. The two groups provided technical assistance to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland and the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland who led this effort.

In addition, Mr. Wagner and Ms. Wright both testified in support of Maryland’s new law at legislative hearings this spring. Their testimony pointed out that HB496/SB400 has precedent in the practice of more than 100 rural counties around the country that currently revise the Census Bureau’s prison counts for internal districting purposes, and in the laws of states such as Kansas that adjust the Census for other purposes.

PPI and Demos long have advocated for the Census Bureau to change its practices so that incarcerated persons would be counted at their home residences on a nationwide basis. While it is too late for that change to be made for the 2010 Census, the Census Bureau’s recent decision to accelerate the release of its prison count data so that states can more readily identify prison populations in the Census will be helpful to states such as Maryland that wish to make their own adjustments.

PPI and Demos applaud the lead sponsors of the legislation, Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk and Senator Catherine Pugh, who deserve special credit for their leadership on this issue. Although both represent legislative districts that contain large prison populations currently counted as part of their districts, both recognized that the issue of fairness and accuracy in statewide redistricting should take precedence over individual concerns. PPI and Demos are also encouraged by the bi-partisan support for the bill including that of Republican Senators J. Lowell Stoltzfus and Donald F. Munson.