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Monday, May 16, 2011
Thousands of New York prisoners are being set free - from being counted in upstate Republicans' state Senate districts.
Under the federal Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice has just approved counting inmates in their hometowns - not where they're locked up - for the purposes of political redistricting.
The decision is a blow to lawmakers who have been counting on the captive audience to bolster their population counts - even while those behind bars can't cast a vote.
Democratic state Board of Elections co-chairman Douglas Kellner says the decision means the prisoners will no longer be "inflating the census count for upstate prison localities....It's another dent in what people are calling the 'prison-industrial complex.'"
Republicans say they're not considering the Justice Department's decision a closed case.
"This topic is the subject of a lawsuit filed by several Republican state senators who believe that the change imposed by Democrats violates the state constitution," said Scott Reif, spokesman for the state Senate GOP majority.
"We're confident that the courts will rule in our favor."
Upstaters aren't the only one who have benefitted from counting captives: For example, the late state Sen. Guy Velella's district was redrawn to include Rikers Island - the same lockup where the Bronx Republican spent time after getting busted for corruption.
J.C. Polanco, GOP president of the city Board of Elections, says the Justice Department's decision "will prove to be disastrous for Republicans upstate."
"When you have tens of thousands of [people] that are now going to be counted in their home district, in the very rural areas, it will impact the look of the district.
"It will be very hard for districts to thrive in the Republican column."
That's just one example that "shows you how gerrymandering affects the ultimate result," Kellner said. Overall, "If you counted up the number of votes for Democratic candidates in the state Senate, number was almost 60%, and yet the Republicans have a majority" because of how the districts are drawn.
(The state Assembly has long been dominated by Democrats.)
Along with ethics reform, a property tax cap and same-sex marriage, redistricting and prisons have been blazing-hot topics in the state Capitol this year.
Gov. Cuomo, in his State of the State address, said incarceration is not a form of economic development, and he now has the authority to eliminate 3,700 beds from the prison system.
That is likely to cost jobs in several upstate regions peppered with prisons.
But how redistricting will be accomplished remains up in the air.