Yesterday, Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) testified at a hearing at 1:30 pm before the California State Senate’s Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments, in support of AB 420, which seeks to end the practice known as “prison-based gerrymandering” in California.  At the conclusion of the hearing, the Senate Committee voted to approve this important legislation.

California law—like that of every other state—provides that an incarcerated person does not become a resident of a community simply by being confined there.  This rule comports with common sense: incarcerated persons do not choose the districts where they are confined. They have no opportunities to interact with or develop enduring ties to the surrounding communities.  And, of course, they cannot vote in those communities.  They are not “constituents” of those districts in any ordinary sense of the word.

But during previous redistricting cycles, California has counted prison populations where they are incarcerated, rather than at their home addresses, which artificially inflates population numbers – and thus, political influence – in the districts where prisons are located, at the expense of voters living in all other districts. 

“Prison-based gerrymandering violates the principle of one person, one vote enshrined in the United States Constitution,” said Ho.  “Election districts are supposed to be roughly equal in size, so that everyone is represented equally in the political process.  But under the current system, your vote counts less if you don’t live nearby a prison.”  With approximately 160,000 incarcerated persons, the proper counting of prison populations in California is critical to ensuring fair representation throughout the state.

Prison-based gerrymandering also results in a dilution of minority voting power.  African Americans in California are incarcerated at a rate that is more than six times higher than that of whites. Together, African Americans and Latinos comprise 43.3% of the state’s population, but are 68.3% of the state’s prisoners. 

Currently ten counties in California—including several counties represented by members of the State Assembly’s Committee on Elections, such as Amador and Del Norte Counties—do not count prisoners as residents of the local community when drawing county commission districts. “What works at the local level for these counties should work equally well at the statewide level for all Californians,” said Ho.

AB 420, the bill under consideration today, passed the California Assembly earlier this month.  LDF helped draft this legislation has actively pushed for its passage, and testified previously in the Assembly in support of it.  The vote in the Senate Elections Committee today is the first step towards passage of the bill in the California Legislature’s upper chamber.  The bill will next be reviewed by the Senate Appropriations Committee, and, if successful there, will head to the Senate floor for an up or down vote.  If it ultimately passes, California will join New York, Maryland, and Delaware and hundreds of counties nationwide in rejecting prison-based gerrymandering, and will become the largest state to do so.

Read a copy of Mr. Ho’s testimony here. (PDF)

LDF, the nation’s oldest civil rights law firm, is committed to the full and equal participation of all persons in our democracy, and urges the passage of AB 420.