Imagine you’re working at your office, about to order something for lunch.
Your co-workers each suggest their favorite restaurant. But somehow, Jim’s choice is counted fifty times, because his desk is near the window, and for whatever reason, that means he gets to represent the forty-nine people standing outside on the sidewalk.
Doesn’t make much sense, does it?
Although this is a simplified metaphor, unequal distribution of decision-making power is taking place in our country as we speak, in our democratic voting system.
In Lawrence County, Illinois, if you are a resident living next to Lawrence Correctional Center, you have fifty times more voting power than the resident in the next district over.
The official name for this phenomenon is prison gerrymandering—an issue gaining traction as America’s prison population grows.
Representational power is being removed from areas of concentrated poverty through arrest.
The root of the problem stems from tabulation methods by the Census Bureau, which counts prisoners as residents of their prison district rather than as constituents of their original neighborhoods.
However, since forty-eight states deny prisoners the right to vote, this method transfers electoral weight from the prisoner’s original district to the prison district.
If we return to Lawrence County, we can see that, although the district officially contains 2,407 residents, only 49 of them are not imprisoned and can actually vote.
This means these 49 people have the voting power of 2,407 people, while the prisoners’ home districts are cheated out of constituents. Residents of the home districts—and, actually, of all districts without prisons—are robbed of their representational weight, if not robbed of actual votes.
Where’s My Vote?
Prison gerrymandering becomes all the more problematic when we also examine the spatial and socioeconomic trends of incarceration and poverty.
A report by my colleague, Paul Jargowsky, reveals that poverty is becoming increasingly concentrated in metropolitan areas.
In Illinois, for example, 97 percent of the high poverty tracts in the Chicago metropolitan area (which includes sixteen counties) are located within the city of Chicago itself. Moreover, poverty is concentrated within the northwest and southern neighborhoods of the city.
Mass incarceration in Chicago is also concentrated within—you guessed it—the northwest and southern neighborhoods.
Although 60 percent of Illinois prisoners come from Chicago, over 90 percent of prisoners in the state are held (on average) 200 miles away from the city. In effect, representational power is being removed from areas of concentrated poverty through arrest, and transferred to outlying areas through imprisonment.
Whitewashing the Vote
The outcome of all of this is that high-poverty neighborhoods are losing political clout to districts all the way across the state.
In the case of Illinois, although only 15 percent of the state’s population is black, 58 percent of its prison population and 38 percent of the urban Chicago area is black.
Lawrence County—which has a representation weight fifty times larger than its actual population would get—is 97 percent white.
Voting power is transferred from high-poverty, primarily black neighborhoods to white districts across the state.
The situation in Lawrence County is an extreme example of prison gerrymandering, but it underscores a problem existing across the country. And, regardless of the scope of any individual case, any such unbalance is unconstitutional.
What’s to Be Done?
The straightforward solution is for the Census Bureau to count prisoners as residents of their legal homes for the 2020 census.
However, states themselves can choose to ignore federal census information when it comes to classifying a prisoners’ residency. The Census Bureau’s data must be used to determine the number of House representatives a state gets, but states are not required to use it to apportion its own legislature.
Thus, New York and Maryland already passed legislation in 2010 that ensures prisoners are tabulated at home for redistricting purposes, effectively eliminating prison gerrymandering. Other states have followed their lead and passed similar legislation in time for the 2020 census.
Additionally, if we replace imprisonment with GPS-enforced house arrest, we can effect a long-run systemic change to our prison system that would help reduce prison gerrymandering as well. Under this cost-effective model, prisoners would maintain their original constituency.
In a country where inequality begins at birth, skewing individual votes perpetuates racial disparities into adulthood.
Equal representation is the basic toolkit of democracy and, frankly, without it, we cannot call ourselves a just nation.