California Assemblymember Mike Davis on the passage of AB 420 in the California State Assembly last week, a bill that seeks to end prison-based gerrymandering in California.  This important legislation will help bring California’s redistricting process in line with basic principles of fairness in the democratic process.

During previous redistricting cycles, California counted prison populations where they are incarcerated, a practice known as “prison-based gerrymandering,” which artificially inflates population numbers – and thus, political influence – in districts where prisons are located, at the expense of voters in all other districts.  This violates the principle of one person, one vote, as enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  With over 140,000 incarcerated persons in California, the proper counting of incarcerated individuals is critical to ensuring fair representation throughout the state.

“Because incarcerated persons in California are disproportionately African Americans and other people of color, the current counting of incarcerated persons at their place of incarceration, rather than at their pre-arrest residence, severely weakens the voting strength of entire communities of color.  Ending prison-based gerrymandering in California will enable state and local officials to better fulfill their obligations under the federal Voting Rights Act,” said John Payton, LDF President and Director-Counsel.

Together, African Americans and Latinos comprise 43.3% of the state’s population, but are nearly 70% of the state’s prisoners.  Overall, Latinos are incarcerated at nearly 2 times the rate of whites, and African Americans at approximately 6 times the rate of whites. 

Leading civil rights groups and minority organizations are therefore supporting AB 420, including MALDEF, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Asian Law Alliance, the Hispanic National Bar Association, the California ACLU, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area, and the Urban League of Sacramento.

AB 420 reflects the reality that California—like nearly every other state—defines a person’s domicile as a place where that person voluntarily resides.  California Elections Code Section 2025 makes clear that an incarcerated person retains the place of residence he or she had prior to arrest, a common practice given that incarcerated persons do not choose the districts where they are confined, and can be moved at any time.  They have no opportunities to interact with or develop enduring ties to the surrounding communities, or to utilize services such as parks.   And, of course, they cannot vote in those communities.  They are not “constituents” of those districts in any ordinary sense of the word. 

“AB 420 will ensure that California’s redistricting commission will have access to the home address information of incarcerated individuals so that, in future redistricting cycles, such individuals can be reallocated to their home communities,”  said Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel in LDF’s Political Participation Group. 
LDF, the nation’s oldest civil rights law firm, is committed to the full and equal participation of all persons in our democracy, and applauds the passage of this landmark legislation in the California Assembly.   “We congratulate Assemblymember Davis and urge the California Senate to pass this important legislation,” said Ho.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is America’s premier legal organization fighting for racial justice. Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, LDF seeks structural changes to expand democracy, eliminate disparities, and achieve racial justice in a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all Americans. LDF also defends the gains and protections won over the past 70 years of civil rights struggle and works to improve the quality and diversity of judicial and executive appointments.