The practice of gerrymandering—the manipulation of electoral district borders to the benefit of one political party over its rival—has been a feature of American democracy for centuries. Gerrymandering has had a profound effect on the political landscape nationwide at both the state and federal levels, tipping the scales in favor of those who draw electoral maps to the detriment of their partisan opponents. While both Democrats and Republicans have received considerable criticism for these unfair political tactics, a subtler tool of electoral manipulation goes largely unnoticed: prison gerrymandering. This occurs when individuals serving prison sentences are counted as residents of the district where they are incarcerated rather than where they lived prior to their conviction.
Most prisoners live in metropolitan areas at the time of their convictions, but are sent to serve their prison sentences in rural communities to which they have no meaningful ties. Nonetheless, they are classified as “constituents” of lawmakers in the district where the prison is located, even though they cannot vote and politicians do not even purport to represent their interests. This has a dual political effect: political influence is artificially inflated for any district that has a prison within its borders, while political representation is reduced for a district that loses its citizens to incarceration.
In New York, for example, 66% of prisoners come from New York City, but 91% are housed in rural upstate regions where prisons are located. The Census Bureau therefore counted over 43,000 prisoners as upstate residents even though they lived in New York City immediately prior to their incarceration. Without this artificial population increase, the NAACP notes, seven of New York’s State Senate districts would not have met the minimum population requirements under federal law when the state drew new districts in 2000. New York’s districts would have to be redrawn, likely to the disadvantage of the state’s rural Republican State Senators. Similarly, Cook County residents comprise 60% of Illinois’ prison population, but over 90% of them are counted in rural counties.
The small town of Anamosa, Iowa offers an extreme example of prison gerrymandering’s distorting effect on democracy. Anamosa’s city council is divided into four wards, each consisting of nearly 1,400 residents. In 2005, a write-in candidate named Danny Young managed to get elected as a city councilman for Ward Two with only two votes. This was possible because Ward Two only had 58 true constituents; the remaining 1,321 residents were prisoners in the Anamosa State Penitentiary. These 58 constituents from Ward Two therefore had about 25 times more voting power than residents from Anamosa’s other wards. It is important to consider that this inflated population count doesn’t just hurt Wards 1, 3, and 4 in city council elections; cities such as Des Moines and Iowa City see their political clout transferred to the district containing the Anamosa State Penitentiary in statewide legislative elections.
This status quo serves as a quiet form of collective punishment against predominantly urban communities of color. In addition to suffering the effects of higher crime rates, their political power is siphoned by more rural, whiter communities. Recent litigation and reform efforts have had moderate success in changing the way prisoners are counted in electoral districts. In Calvin v. Jefferson County Board of Commissioners (2015), in which the ACLU and other organizations challenged districting practices in Florida, a federal judge ruled that including the Jefferson Correctional Institution’s inmates in Jefferson County’s population base for districting purposes is “arbitrary” and violates the Equal Protection Clause. Judge Mark Walker went on to say, “To treat the inmates the same as actual constituents makes no sense under any theory of one person, one vote, and indeed under any theory of representative democracy.” Walker ordered the Board of Commissioners to “quickly devise a plan that does not impermissibly dilute the voting strength of the denizens of Jefferson County.” To date, however, the Supreme Court has not addressed the constitutionality of prison gerrymandering.
Activists, particularly the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, have pushed state legislatures across the country to end prison gerrymandering. Reform bills are currently pending in four states, while ten states have enacted legislation that either removes prisoners from the population count for redistricting purposes, or takes the additional step of reclassifying prisoners as residents at their last known address prior to their incarceration. By doing so, states can restore the political representation that communities collectively lose when their citizens are involuntarily transferred from one region to another.