Prison-based gerrymandering is the practice of counting incarcerated persons as “residents” of a prison when drawing legislative districts in order to give extra influence to the districts that contain the prisons. The U.S. Constitution requires that election districts be roughly equal in size, so that everyone is represented equally in the political process. But prison-based gerrymandering distorts our democracy by artificially inflating the population numbers — and thus, the political clout — of districts with prisons, while diluting the political power of all other voters.
That this problem exists at all is largely an accident of two facts: (1) an outdated Census Bureau methodology that counts people in prison as residents of the correctional facilities, not of their legal home addresses; and (2) the skyrocketing rates of incarceration. Hopefully, in the future, the Census Bureau will eliminate the problem by counting incarcerated people as residents of their legal home addresses. Last year, three states — Maryland, Delaware and New York — had the foresight to pass legislation to eliminate prison-based gerrymandering within their borders. These three states now require that districts be based on Census data adjusted to reflect incarcerated people at their home addresses. More than a hundred rural counties and municipalities around the country have historically refused to engage in prison-based gerrymandering; they manually remove prison populations prior to drawing districts for local government. But most states and jurisdictions will still face the problem of prison-based gerrymandering in the upcoming round of redistricting.
When your legislature announces a proposed redistricting plan and invites public comment, you’ll need to act quickly to identify if and exactly how they used prisons to distort democracy in your state, county or city. This guide will tell you what to look for in the data and the state’s proposed plan in order to minimize the harm of prison-based gerrymandering.
(This guide assumes you have a mapping staff or sympathetic technical people on the redistricting body to assist you. Your technical allies can refer to our memo, Using the Census Bureau’s Advanced Group Quarters Table, which explains the timing, value, content and limitations of the Bureau’s prison count data.)