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Prison Gerrymandering Jeopardizes Election Fairness

by Lucas Eaves, published

Prison gerrymandering Credit: Prison Tower/

Gerrymandering is considered by many Americans as one of the reasons behind extreme partisanship and the lack of adequate representation in Washington. Lesser known is the issue of prison gerrymandering and how it distorts representation in state and local elections. Share story: Tweet

Every 10 years, the Census Bureau takes a census of the American population. Based on the results, each state will proceed to a reapportionment, meaning they will redraw their districts to take into account the demographic evolution.

The issue is that the Census Bureau counts prisoners as residents of their place of incarcerations instead of their latest address, despite the fact prisoners are not allowed to vote in 48 states or that an average sentence in the U.S. is only 5 years.

Such a system has allowed lawmakers to increase the political weight of underpopulated areas by drawing electoral districts around prisons. If the resulted distortion was not significant in the past, it is now.

Indeed, the incarcerated population has dramatically increased in the U.S, rising from 500,000 inmates in 1980 to 2.2 million in 2012. The composition of a district can be substantially altered by the inclusion of its prison population in a census. Tweet stat: Tweet

Among the most blatant results would be Maryland’s House of Delegates District 2B, located an hour away from Washington D.C, where nearly 20 percent of its population is incarcerated. Another example is the town of Rome in upstate New York, where inmates make up nearly half of the population of a city counsel district.

Prison gerrymandering results in giving prison districts more weight in state affairs than they really deserve and some citizens a stronger voice than other citizens. At a time when the American people are deceived by the political process more than ever, the fact that prison gerrymandering interferes with the principle of equal representation will weaken their trust even more.

Since 2010, four states -- Maryland, New York, Delaware, and California -- have changed their laws in order to adjust the census results and avoid prison gerrymandering. They decided, for redistricting purposes, to count prisoners at their last known home address. At least ten other states are considering similar changes.

For New York and Maryland, which implemented these changes before the 2012 elections, it was an expensive, very time consuming administrative task. To avoid these hurdles, many advocates for reform, like Prisoners of the Census, are hopeful that for the next census, the Census Bureau will start counting prisoners at their last home address rather than where they are incarcerated.

Justin Levitt, a redistricting expert and associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, told the Pew Charitable Trusts that it would be logistically easier for the Census Bureau to be in charge of the reallocation of prisoners rather than the states.

Partisanship should not prevent such reform from being undertaken. Considering that prisons are in more rural areas that tend to lean Republican and prisoners originally come from more urban areas that tend to lean democratic, some would expect partisan gains from a reallocation.

However, results in New York and Maryland prove otherwise. Reallocation in those states had very little, if any, effect on the balance between Republicans and Democrats. “The legislation has an impact, but not a partisan impact,” said Justin Levitt.

Some argue that such reform is too complicated for its limited results. However, at the core of prison gerrymandering is the issue of fairness.

Even if ending this practice would only result in small changes in some places, it would at least restore the principle that in the democratic process, each voice is equal. In the current political environment, this would be a nice result.

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