Prison-Based Gerrymandering on Election Day

One person, one vote? Not if the Census Bureau continues to miscount prisoners.

It’s a little-known form of gerrymandering: Legislators across the U.S. count prisoners as part of the communities where they are held rather than as part of the community where they reside, according to the Prison Policy Institute (PPI). The added problem is that, in most states prisoners don’t have the right to vote, including in Massachusetts, where more than 11,000 prisoners will not vote on Election Day.

Only two states in the U.S.—Vermont and Maine—allow prisoners to vote. While disenfranchising felons is on the back-burner in many people’s minds, there are more than 2.2 million men and women incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails as of today. That’s a lot of potential votes.

The argument for taking away voting rights mostly involves the idea of “if you commit a crime, you don’t deserve a ballot,” but until 2000, when that right was rescinded in Massachusetts, many prisoners discussed the issues in depth and detail. Many wanted to make informed choices. Some held formal debates on the presidential candidates. Most still want to be counted as citizens with a right to vote. I know because I used to teach behind bars.

But even without their right to vote, prisoners in all but two states are still being counted by the U.S. Census in the district where they’re incarcerated. Peter Wagner, the executive director of PPI, says that doing this gives political clout to state legislators who get added jobs from prisons in their districts and the added surge from a population increase, which can “swell[s] local numbers enough to justify the creation of a legislative seat.”

But not everyone gets the win-win under this scenario. Solidly minority urban districts don’t get the additional representation from prisoners who come from their communities; and this can play heavily into redistricting issues, according to Maureen Turner in The Valley Advocate. Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, points out the resulting disenfranchisement of prisoners of color. And Boston-based voting rights attorney Brenda Wright says that prison-based gerrymandering sounds suspiciously like the old U.S. Constitution’s “three-fifths” compromise where slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for the specific purposes of congressional districting.

PPI has filed legislation in Massachusetts to try to get changes across the state. Until such legislation occurs state-wide, Massachusetts towns like Harvard, Lancaster, Middleton, Shirley, and Gardner are left to their own devices. Gardner decided not to count inmates at North Central Correctional Institution when it redrew its city council districts in 2001, insisting that otherwise there’d be too much political influence in the part of town where the facility is located. But the buck really stops with the Census Bureau. If they keep miscounting prisoners, we hardly have one person, one vote.