Civil rights groups including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund are applauding New York State’s new law that will end the practice of prison-based gerrymandering.
The New York State Legislature last week passed the law requiring inmates to be counted as residents of their home communities when political districts are redrawn not in the areas where they are imprisoned.
With Congressional redistricting to begin in March of 2011 the new law could have major impact on the future makeup of the state’s congressional districts. The NAACP Defense Fund, which is a separate organization from the NACCP, was one of many groups behind the effort over the years to have the law changed.
“While we are pleased the law now reflects what New York’s Constitution intended, the fight is not over. There are a number of states where similar bills are pending in state legislatures and we are making a major effort to target those states,” explained NAACP Legal Defense Fund Legislative assistant Dale Ho.
According to Ho, prison-based gerrymandering is an accounting gimmick, which dilutes the voting power of minority communities.
“I think it has been well-documented that minorities are incarcerated at rates much higher than whites,” said Ho. “At some point it becomes advantageous to put more black men in prison and give them longer terms. It is nothing more than the use of the Census to affect a pure transfer of political power.”
Most incarcerated people can’t vote and in many states the prison population is largely comprised of African-Americans and Latinos, yet in almost every state the prisons are located in overwhelmingly white and rural towns.
The accounting inflates towns with incarcerated and disenfranchised minorities. The inflated populations mean prison towns get more representation in the state legislature, meaning less emphasis on urban issues and a disproportionate focus on rural concerns.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Dale Ho cited the current situation in Iowa as a particularly egregious example.
“There is a city in Iowa, Anamosa, that has four districts. Three have about 1,300 people each. The fourth has only about 50 to 60 people but because they have a prison, their inflected count is now over 1,300 people. The level of legislative representation in Anamosa simply does not reflect reality.”
In 2010, and in Census counts prior, inmates were counted at their prison locations and many state counties and municipalities will then use these numbers as the official count including the incarcerated people as residents of the prison location, inflating the local population counts used for legislative districts. The Census Bureau this year is trying to make it easier for states to adjust how they account for their prison populations into redistricting. The Census Bureau has stated they will make an extra effort to release prisoner data in time for states to identify those populations and account for them elsewhere when redistricting.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which has drawn attention to the problem nationwide, is organizing to have legislation in place that by the next census, in 2020, the practice will end all together and the Census Bureau will change how inmates are counted.