How Prison-Based Gerrymandering Hurts Rural Communities
Since most prisons are in rural areas, and most prisoners come from urban areas, prison-based gerrymandering is often portrayed as an urban vs. rural issue. (For a roundup of my earlier blog posts on the issue of where to count prisoners for Census 2010, click here; to sign Change.org’s petition urging New York lawmakers to pass a pending bill that would end prison-based gerrymandering in that state, click here.) But as Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative points out:
the practice of padding some legislative districts with large prisons dilutes the votes of everyone who does not live next to a large prison. Rural and urban communities suffer about the same.
Wagner testified earlier this week in hearings before the House Subcommittee on Information Policy, the Census, and National Archives. You can read his prepared testimony at the Prisoners of the Census Blog. Highlights:
[W]hen states rely on Census Bureau prison counts to draw districts, they inflate the weight of a vote in the prison district at the expense of every person in every district that does not contain a large prison. …
This problem is even more significant in rural counties and cities that contain prisons. Their legislative districts, county board districts and city council districts are smaller, so a single prison can have a massive effect. The most well known example is in Anamosa, Iowa, where the state’s largest prison is located and where it constituted 96% of the city’s second ward. In 2005, there were no candidates for election, and the winner won with two write in votes, one cast by his wife and another by a neighbor. Citizen outcry about granting some residents 25 times as much political influence over the future of the city just because they live next to the prison led to changing the form of government in the city to eliminate the districts. I understand that one of the first persons to sign the petition for change was the representative of the prison district.
Anamosa is an extreme example, but far from unique. Waupun, Wisconsin has a city council district that is 79% incarcerated persons. Lake County Tennessee has a county board district that is 88% incarcerated persons. And the city of Rome, New York has a city council district where half of the population is not residents of the city, but people incarcerated in state prison facilities.