It seems like every day we see another news story about how conservative politicians found a new and innovative way to disenfranchise minority populations living in urban centers. But while voter ID laws and partisan gerrymandering (rightfully) earn significant outrage, there’s another issue discriminately shifting political power in virtually every state that’s flown under the radar: prison gerrymandering.
Prison gerrymandering is the practice of state and congressional districts including imprisoned populations in the headcount that determines district lines. While those behind bars are people and should be included in the census, their numbers should be separate from resident tallies that determine district lines for elections. This is because in 48 states, citizens behind bars cannot participate in our democratic processes. They cannot vote as residents of their home district or their prison’s district. That means that the representatives elected from the rural districts where the prisons are located actually represent far fewer people than their colleagues from the urban districts where the prisoners come from. This leaves some representatives with real constituencies of 10,000, while their counterparts, with the exact same amount of voting power in their respective chamber, are responsible for 5,000.
What’s more, most states have a constitutional or statutory requirement that being behind bars does not change a person’s residency. That makes this practice not only irresponsible, but illegal.
Besides affecting constituency numbers and the power behind each vote, counting incarcerated citizens as residents of the area they’re imprisoned in affects the allocation of state and federal resources, as well as tax policy. For example, if a district is said to have a certain number residents by the US Census–which is not bound by state constitutions and has been complicit in prison gerrymandering– the federal government might assume a certain amount of money will be sufficient federal funding of local schools. With distorted population figures, these estimates can be highly inaccurate, either resulting in higher or lower funding on a smaller or greater population, respectively. These inaccuracies have far reaching consequences, as federal affordable housing, infrastructure, and hospital spending all rely on the US Census for accurate information.
Like most other forms of gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement, this issue is disproportionately tilted in favor of rural, less diverse voters, as prisons are far likelier to be located in less populated areas. According to the Washington Post’s analysis of the 2010 Census, with the exceptions of more populous states including California and Florida, few states have corrections populations in every county. For example, the Midwest tends to have concentrated populations in a small number of counties. Former New York Corrections Commission Thomas Coughlin went so far as to suggest that prisons are viewed as “the anchor for development in rural areas.” Originally intended to boost the rural economies, they now serve as agents in undermining our democracy, giving voters in the surrounding areas significantly more power at the ballot box than their urban counterparts. In New York, until the 2000 Census included people behind bars, seven districts did not meet the minimum population requirement. Now, those districts are in accordance with the population requirement through artificial headcounts conducted by the Census Bureau which continues to count prisoners as residents of their prison’s district, despite the state’s constitution insisting “no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence, by reason of his presence or absence … while confined in any public prison.” Dozens of other states are in the same predicament.
This fall when we head to the polls, some of our votes will matter less than others because of prison gerrymandering. All Americans should see this for what it is– a democracy that needs fixing. So what can be done? First, we must demand our representatives enforce whatever laws already exist ensuring that states incarceration does not change an individual’s residency. Next, we must advocate for the Census Bureau to reverse its decision to count people as residents of where they are imprisoned. It’s not too late to force this agency to follow the Supreme Court mandate of “one person, one vote.”