“Prison-based gerrymandering” is a practice whereby many states and local governments count incarcerated persons as residents of the areas where they are housed when election district lines are drawn. This practice distorts our democratic process by artificially inflating the population count—and thus, the political influence—of the districts where prisons and jails are located. As a result, the voting power of everyone living outside of those districts is weakened.
Prison-based gerrymandering makes a mockery of the principle of “one person, one vote,” which requires that election districts be comprised of roughly the same number of constituents so that every person receives the same level of representation. Unfortunately, prison-based gerrymandering gives added voting power to districts with prisons, violating this bedrock principle of political equality. Democracy at all levels of government suffers as a result. This problem is not limited to any particular region, and affects both rural and urban communities alike.
Undoubtedly, however, the communities that are the most thoroughly victimized by prison-based gerrymandering are urban communities of color—a result of the racial discrimination that infects our nation’s criminal justice policies.
African-Americans are 12.7% of the general population, but are 41.3% of the federal and state prison population. Members of the disproportionately minority incarcerated population are largely held in areas that are both geographically and demographically far removed from their home communities: in New York, for example, approximately 77% of all prisoners are African-American or Latino, but 98% of all prisons are located in disproportionately white State Senate districts. Nationally, rural communities make up only about 20% of the U.S. population, but it is estimated that 40% of all incarcerated persons are held in facilities located in rural areas.
Across the country, prison-based gerrymandering weakens minority voting strength and transfers political power from urban communities of color to predominantly white areas.
The unfairness of this phenomenon, as a practical matter, is not lost on most people. And legally, it raises substantial concerns under both Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act and the United States Constitution.