This month, the Citizens Redistricting Commission released preliminary final maps that are expected to become the statewide redistricting plans for Congressional and state legislative districts in California.
But one factor, overlooked during much of the wrangling over district lines, threatens to render those maps inconsistent with the basic principle that everyone should be represented equally in our democracy: the treatment of prison populations as ordinary members of the local community where they incarcerated. This practice, known as “prison-based gerrymandering,” distorts the allocation of representation in the legislature.
Here’s how it works: districts are required to have roughly the same number of constituents, so that everyone is represented equally in the political process. But prison-based gerrymandering artificially inflates population numbers-and thus, political influence – in the places where large prisons are located, diluting representation for everyone else.
Prison-based gerrymandering is no trivial matter. There are more than 2 million incarcerated people in America, a total population larger than that of 15 individual states, and larger than our three smallest states combined. If they were a state, the incarcerated population would qualify for five votes in the Electoral College. Where they are counted has tremendous implications for the shape of our democracy.