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ACLU Urges State Reapportionment Commission to Address Problem of Prison Gerrymandering

Posted: October 18, 2011|Category: Voting Rights

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At a public hearing last night, the Rhode Island ACLU called on the state Reapportionment Commission address the critical problem of prison gerrymandering when drawing legislative district lines. Prison gerrymandering refers to the practice of counting all inmates at a prison as living there for purposes of redistricting. The impact of skewing districts this way is that the voting strength of the communities from which the inmates come is diluted, while the political influence of the city residents in which the prison is located is inflated.

The ACLU’s testimony noted that the allocation of all prisoners to Cranston for redistricting purposes is particularly problematic and flawed because that premise is in direct conflict with state voting law, which explicitly provides that incarceration does not change a person’s residence. Thus, even though inmates at the ACI are counted as residents of Cranston for redistricting purposes, they are statutorily denied the right to vote from there even if they want to. The ACLU’s testimony argued that “this inconsistency is unconscionable.”

The testimony added that Rhode Island’s small population, combined with the fact that all its inmates are located in one concentrated area of land “provides one of the most dramatic examples of how prison populations distort representation…” Citing data from the Prison Policy Initiative, a national group that focuses on prison gerrymandering, the ACLU testimony noted: “If the entire Cranston prison complex was put within the same legislative district, 24% of that district would be incarcerated, all but guaranteeing that Rhode Island would have the most dramatic instance of prison-based gerrymandering in a state legislative district in the country.”

In the past two years, four states have passed laws to end prison gerrymandering by counting incarcerated individuals at their last home address. The ACLU called on the Commission to urge the General Assembly to pass similar legislation. In the interim, the ACLU proposed greatly reducing the impact of prison-based gerrymandering by having the Commission remove the prison population from the redistricting data or by treating inmates as the Census Bureau treats over-seas military personnel for allocating populations: at large.  The prison population would then not skew any individual legislative district. The testimony pointed out that “mathematically, counting incarcerated people at the prison location has a larger vote dilutive effect than simply failing to count them at the correct home address.”

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