June 7, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
From the delayed implementation of Florida’s Amendment 4 to Nevada’s re-enfranchisement of ex-felons, voting rights have garnered more headlines than usual in recent weeks. Presidential candidates have even floated their own electoral reforms, including controversial ones such as voting rights for current prisoners.
Lost in the news cycle, however, is one issue that deserves more attention: The practice known as “prison gerrymandering.”
Prison-based gerrymandering — the norm in most U.S. states — has more to do with where Americans are counted in the census than the literal drawing of legislative maps. As it stands now, the U.S. Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the towns where they are confined, not where they are from. This allows districts with large prison populations to send more elected officials to the state capital, regardless of the fact that prisoners aren’t voting for those representatives. The practice essentially leaves “prison districts” with undeserved power in the state legislature, and more legislative influence than they would otherwise have in state politics.
This leads to a warped representation of local democracy. Because prisons are disproportionately built in rural areas, but most incarcerated people are from urban areas, prison gerrymandering results in a systematic transfer of political clout from urban to rural areas.
Take Illinois: Although 60 percent of the state’s prisoners are from Cook County (Chicago), 99 percent of them are counted outside the county. Or consider Texas: In the Lone Star State, roughly 12 percent of one rural district’s population is comprised of prisoners. Eighty-eight residents from that district, therefore, are represented in the state House as if they were 100 residents from Dallas or San Antonio.
Unfortunately, prison gerrymandering can provide a perverse incentive for districts to seek out additional prisoners, many of them from communities of color. If representational power is the name of the game, then rapid increases in incarceration can be a means to that end.
Oftentimes, minority communities are those most adversely affected. As of 2017, federal and state prisons in the United States held nearly 476,000 inmates who were black and just over 436,000 who were white, meaning that prison gerrymandering disproportionately impacts the African-American community. More specifically, it undermines that community’s power at the ballot box.
Fortunately, states are taking strides to address the issue and strengthen American democracy — for all of their residents. A new Washington law has effectively ended prison gerrymandering in the state, ensuring that imprisoned Washingtonians are counted as residents of their home communities in redistricting procedures — and not residents of the communities where they are incarcerated. Prior to the new law, Washington districts with prisons in their jurisdiction were artificially populated by the inclusion of a higher number of residents unable to vote, and thereby overrepresented on the electoral map.
Washington voters can trust that future legislative districts will be drawn more fairly, and power delegated more proportionately. The Evergreen State now joins California, Delaware, New York and Maryland as the only states to explicitly ban prison gerrymandering at the state level. Meanwhile, nine other states are considering legislation that addresses the issue, and a federal judge recently ruled that a lawsuit seeking to end the practice in Connecticut can move forward.
In truth, such reforms are long overdue. Democracy applied unequally and unfairly is not a democracy that keeps its constituents’ best interests at heart. However, the ongoing debate over felon and prisoner voting rights reminds us that there is a long way to go.
Outdated practices like prison gerrymandering are un-American, and detrimental to a democratic government that relies on popular, proportionate representation to function optimally. Only by doing away with them can we truly fix American democracy.
Campbell Streator serves as program director at Every Vote Counts, a student-led, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout and expanding voter access.
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