AIRC Update: Prison-based gerrymandering of districts

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

Blog for Arizona gets a shout out from Leah Sakala at Prisoners of the Census blog, and we'll give you a shout out right back with your post here. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission wrangles with prison-based gerrymandering | Prisoners of the Census:

It looks like this time around Arizona is paying attention to the issue of prison-based gerrymandering.

At a meeting this week, the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission recognized that counting incarcerated populations as residents of the districts in which they are confined could have a harmful effect on Arizona democracy. The meeting included technical and legal briefings, as well as compelling testimony from Mohur Sidhwa and Jim March.

After a lengthy discussion about the issue and various solutions, the Redistricting Commission promised to keep in mind the potential distortion caused by counting incarcerated people in the wrong place. Commissioner Richard Stertz explained that in particular the commission

…[doesn't] want to give any indication of creating a non-voting population in a particular legislative district that would lead those that can vote into a hyper-majority by virtue of having so many prisoners in a particular legislative district.

The Redistricting Commission also clarified that it would exclude prisons from its Voting Rights Act Section 5 analysis in order to avoid creating “artificial majority-minority districts” comprised largely of non-voting incarcerated populations. As the Commission’s redistricting expert Bruce Adelson emphasized,

The election analysis in determining what are effective majority-minority districts where minorities have the opportunity to elect, as we’ve talked about, cannot include felons who are incarcerated because they can’t vote.

Prison-based gerrymandering was originally not on the Commission’s agenda. But the Commission’s recent announcement followed a new round of public attention to the problem. In particular, Amanda Crawford wrote a great article raising the issue in Phoenix Magazine, and as I blogged last month, AZBlueMeanie has been writing about the problem on Blog for Arizona. There has also been repeated detailed testimony at Commission meetings from Jim March of BlackBoxVoting and others arguing that avoiding prison-based gerrymandering is both advisable and technically feasible.

UPDATE: Steve Muratore has more on this topic at The Arizona Eagletarian: Redistricting — Intertribal Council presentations, competitiveness and urgency:

Public testimony of note on Thursday, other than by tribal representatives, included Tucson Libertarian activist Jim March making the case, this time also to the Native Americans in the audience, regarding the prison population issue. He played a PowerPoint presentation and told the audience that unless the method for addressing prisons is changed, it will materially dilute the voice of voters in Arizona's Tribal communities.  March spelled out his concern that a Pinal County superdistrict — covering the I-10 corridor between Phoenix and Tucson — could become a "wholly owned subsidiary" of the private prison industry.

Granted, the demographic data, primarily the number of prisoners currently incarcerated in federal, state and private prison facilities throughout Arizona taken alone might suggest the problem is not necessarily a big deal. But a realistic scenario, considering several likely very real factors might legitimately support March's fear.

Florence and Eloy, now roughly halfway between Tucson and Phoenix, already have prisons. Gov. Brewer was very recently in Pinal County to promote another prison development project.  Local businesses need local residents (who hold jobs) to spend money.  A steady stream of government spending for the employees (to house and guard those prisoners) would provide an environment ripe for parochial interests in such a superdistrict (or more than one) with strong incentive to enact laws to promote higher prison populations and additional facilities.

To me, March's scenario, in present day Arizona, is realistic and not at all dependent on a "conspiracy theory" type mindset.

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