(New York, New York) – Today, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) released Captive Constituents, a report on prison-based gerrymandering.
As the report details, most states and local governments count incarcerated persons as residents of the prison communities where they are housed when drawing election district lines, even though they are not residents of those communities and have no opportunity to build meaningful ties there.
“This practice is known as ‘prison-based gerrymandering,’ and it distorts our democratic process by artificially inflating the population count—and thus, the political influence—of the districts where prisons and jails are located,” said John Payton, LDF Director-Counsel. “Everyone should care about this anti-democratic phenomenon because it distorts our political system.”
The United States Constitution requires that election districts must be roughly equal in size, so that everyone is represented equally in the political process. This requirement, known as the “one person, one vote” principle, is undermined by prison-based gerrymandering.
Prison-based gerrymandering results in stark racial disparities as well. African Americans are nearly 13% of the general population, but are 41.3% of the federal and state prison population. But incarcerated persons are often held in areas that are far removed, both geographically and demographically, from their home communities. Thus, prison-based gerrymandering not only weakens the political strength of communities of color, it is also eerily reminiscent of the infamous “three-fifths compromise,” which enabled Southern states to amplify their political power by counting enslaved and disfranchised African Americans as amongst their constituents.
“Because incarcerated persons in the United States are disproportionately African Americans and other people of color, the current counting of prisoners at their place of incarceration severely weakens the voting strength of entire communities of color,” said Payton.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Census Bureau agreed, for the first time, to make information on prisoner population numbers available to states and localities in time for those figures to be taken into account in the electoral redistricting process. States and localities will now have the ability to draw election districts without engaging in prison-based gerrymandering.
In April, Maryland became the first state to take up this opportunity by passing legislation requiring that prisoners be counted at their pre-arrest addresses.
Many other states are currently considering similar legislation, and dozens of counties throughout the nation already treat incarcerated persons as non-residents of the prisons where they are held.
“States and localities have to decide whether they believe in the principle that all individuals are entitled to equality in the political process,” said Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel in LDF’s Political Participation Group. “If so, they will follow Maryland’s lead and put an end to prison-based gerrymandering.”