Prison-based gerrymandering of districts

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

A friend of mine tells me that prison-based gerrymandering of districts was raised as an issue at an AIRC meeting last week. I am informed that one of the GOP shadow groups present at these AIRC meetings was particularly interested in this tried and true method of gerrymandering. It is up to you not to allow this to happen in Arizona.

Prison populations are counted for purposes of the federal Census to reflect the population of the state at that moment in time. Due to antiquated Census rules, prisoners are counted where they are incarcerated rather than their last residence or domicile.

This is a problem because prisoners are convicted felons and cannot vote in the state of Arizona. Some of the state's larger prisons have populations nearly equal to, perhaps in excess of, the surrounding community in which the prison is located. This can give a small number of people more clout in their vote, while diluting the votes of all others. It also greatly distorts minority voter "communities of interest" to be taken into account by the AIRC and under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

There is a useful web site that has links to resources which explain prison based gerrymandering of districts. Prisoners of the Census.

One resource is "Prison-based gerrymandering in redistricting: what to watch for":

Prison-based gerrymandering is the practice of counting incarcerated persons as “residents” of a prison when drawing legislative districts in order to give extra influence to the districts that contain the prisons. The U.S. Constitution requires that election districts be roughly equal in size, so that everyone is represented equally in the political process. But prison-based gerrymandering distorts our democracy by artificially inflating the population numbers — and thus, the political clout — of districts with prisons, while diluting the political power of all other voters.

That this problem exists at all is largely an accident of two facts: (1) an outdated Census Bureau methodology that counts people in prison as residents of the correctional facilities, not of their legal home addresses; and (2) the skyrocketing rates of incarceration. Hopefully, in the future, the Census Bureau will eliminate the problem by counting incarcerated people as residents of their legal home addresses.

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When your legislature announces a proposed redistricting plan and invites public comment, you’ll need to act quickly to identify if and exactly how they used prisons to distort democracy in your state, county or city. This guide will tell you what to look for in the data and the state’s proposed plan in order to minimize the harm of prison-based gerrymandering.

(This guide assumes you have a mapping staff or sympathetic technical people on the redistricting body to assist you. Your technical allies can refer to our memo, Using the Census Bureau’s Advanced Group Quarters Table, which explains the timing, value, content and limitations of the Bureau’s prison count data.)

Protecting minority voting strength

Sometimes, a district that seems to have a majority-minority population really doesn’t, because of prison-based gerrymandering. If the minority “population” of the district consists of large number of incarcerated persons – who can’t vote – the district population numbers may be distorted. This creates districts that appear to give minorities the ability to elect the candidate of their choice, but in reality, they cannot. You need to examine any majority-minority district that includes a prison, to ensure that the district really has enough voting-eligible persons of color to create a viable majority with the ability to elect a candidate of choice to office.

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Similarly, although to different effect, prison populations sometimes create a false picture of racial and ethnic “diversity” within a district. Pointing out these examples is an effective way to raise the issue of prison-based gerrymandering and can be a powerful fact to raise if, as discussed in the next section, the state has under-populated districts that contain prisons.

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Keeping prison-based gerrymandering from making other malapportionment issues worse

Advocates should examine what percentage of each district is actually incarcerated, and how that interacts with the existing population deviations in the proposed districts. Keep in mind that in the strange world of redistricting, “underpopulated” districts have more political power than “overpopulated” districts, because in underpopulated districts, fewer people get the same opportunity to elect a representative as a larger number of people crowded into an “overpopulated” district. For that reason, a district that nominally falls within the 5% deviation rule applicable to state and local districts, but would fall outside that deviation without the prison population, should raise a red flag, and should be examined carefully to determine if the deviation should be reduced. Apart from that specific situation, any districts having large prisons should be scrutinized to avoid underpopulation of such districts compared to ideal district size, because including prison population magnifies the underpopulation of the district.

Limiting the vote enhancement in districts with prisons

Advocates should consider whether, if insufficient time remains to collect the home addresses of incarcerated people for this round of redistricting, the legislature can be persuaded to declare all incarcerated people to live at “unknown addresses” and not include them in the individual districts that contain prisons. (See Interview with Justin Levitt of the Brennan Center for Justice for more on why “unknown addresses” is superior to the Census Bureau’s status quo. )

If the legislature will not consider removing the prison populations from individual districts, advocates should examine ways to limit the magnitude of the vote enhancement to each district that contains a prison. Advocates should determine what percentage of each proposed district is actually incarcerated, and consider whether it is possible to configure the districts so that multiple large prisons are not concentrated in an individual district, thereby lessening the size of the vote enhancement in the prison districts . . .

Another resource is the "50 State Guide to Fixing Prison-Based Gerrymandering." Click on the interactive map for Arizona, and this is what you will learn: 

When legislators claim people incarcerated in their districts are legitimate constituents, they award people who live close to the prison more of a say in government than everybody else.
Impact at the state level:

  • Maricopa County contains 59% of Arizona’s population, but 64% of the state’s prisoners come from the county. The political effect of this disproportionate incarceration rate is magnified by the fact that few prisoners are incarcerated in Maricopa — the county contains only 19% of the Arizona’s state prison cells.
  • Crediting many of Arizona’s incarcerated people to a few locations, far away from home, enhances the political clout of the people who live near prisons, while diluting the voting power of all other Arizonans.

Impact at the local level:

  • The town of Buckeye excluded the prison population when drawing electoral districts, otherwise the prison would have been a district all by itself with no voters.
  • Pinal County rejects the Census Bureau's prison count when drawing county board of supervisors districts. Otherwise the people who live near the prisons would have more political influence than residents of other county districts.
  • Substantial prison-based gerrymandering problems exist in Graham County. In Graham County, District 1 is 6% incarcerated (Fort Grant Unit of Arizona State Prison Complex- Safford). District 2 is 18.5% incarcerated (FCI Safford & Arizona State Prison Complex- Safford), giving some residents more influence than others.

Arizona law says a prison cell is not a residence:

“For the purpose of voting, no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence by reason of being present or absent… while confined in any public jail or prison.” (Arizona Constitution, Article VII, § 3.)

Fact sheet: Prison-based gerrymandering in Arizona

Also: Census counts of prisoners stymie Arizona’s efforts to create equally sized districts.

There is much more invaluable information and resources at this web site.