Help End Prison Gerrymandering Prison gerrymandering funnels political power away from urban communities to legislators who have prisons in their (often white, rural) districts. More than a decade ago, the Prison Policy Initiative put numbers on the problem and sparked the movement to end prison gerrymandering.

Can you help us continue the fight? Thank you.

—Peter Wagner, Executive Director
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Prisons account for over half of the population in nearly 40 municipalities, painting a distorted picture of communities.

by Aleks Kajstura, November 10, 2020

The Ina Community Center shares a little unassuming building with the Ina Village Hall. The squat single-story structure probably serves the little Illinois village quite well. But judging by their Census population of over 2,300, you wouldn’t think the building adequate.

The village only has 494 actual residents. The 1,800 people who make up the remainder of the Census population are folks who are incarcerated at the Big Muddy Prison. Because the prison is located within the village boundaries, the Census counts them as if they were village residents. That means 80% of the population reported for Ina are legal residents of other villages, towns, and cities, scattered across Illinois.

Ina is just one of nearly 40 municipalities across the US where more than half of the Census population is actually people who were counted at a correctional facility. And in over 100 municipalities, at least one in three people counted by the Census are actually out-of-town residents.

I often talk about how the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people as if they were residents of the town that contains the prison causes prison gerrymandering. Prison gerrymandering is the process of using prisons to pad district populations, resulting in increased political representation for people who live near prisons.

But the Census Bureau’s practice skews data in ways that affect more than just redistricting data and representation. When a prison accounts for half of your city population, the Census’ demographic information such as race and ethnicity is not representative of the local residents. Mass incarceration’s disproportionate impact on Black and Latino communities, coupled with prisons being built largely in white communities distorts the Census’ demographic data when people aren’t counted in their home communities. This often paints a distorted picture of job opportunities in the local economy.

Many people assume that prison gerrymandering affects funding allocation, but in fact funding allocation seems to be one of the few data uses left untouched by the Census’ prison miscount. Over the decades, funding formulas have developed a level of complexity that leaves them mostly impervious to the Census Bureau’s odd interpretation of residence.

This year, the Census once again counted all incarcerated people as residents of the facility where they were located on April 1. The population data that will be released over the next few months will therefore suffer from the same deficiencies for another decade; it will once again fail to represent the people who actually live in these communities. For now, places such as Ina can find some relevant information in the Census data, if they know where to look and dig carefully enough. Perhaps by 2030 the Census Bureau will count everyone at home rather than shifting the burden of making its data usable onto everyone else.

Municipalities where at least one third of the Census’ population count is made up of correctional facilities:
Place State 2010 Census Population Percent Incarcerated
Ina village Illinois 2,338 78.87%
Davisboro city Georgia 2,010 77.36%
Chester town Georgia 1,596 77.19%
Varnado village Louisiana 1,461 77%
Whiteville town Tennessee 4,638 74.51%
Sumner city Illinois 3,174 74.29%
Dannemora village New York 3,936 71.52%
Helena town Oklahoma 1,403 71.49%
Clifton city Tennessee 2,694 70.49%
Boley town Oklahoma 1,184 70.19%
Ridgeville town South Carolina 1,979 69.98%
Florence town Arizona 25,536 69.10%
Malone town Florida 2,088 68.97%
Alamo town Georgia 2,797 68.32%
Nicholls city Georgia 2,798 67.66%
Tutwiler town Mississippi 3,550 66.48%
Polkton town North Carolina 3,375 64.89%
Jasper city Florida 4,546 64.61%
Abbeville city Georgia 2,908 63.51%
Sheridan village Illinois 2,137 62.70%
Springfield city South Dakota 1,989 62.49%
Brunswick town North Carolina 1,119 61.75%
Grafton village Ohio 6,636 60.96%
Lumpkin city Georgia 2,741 58.23%
Clayton town Alabama 3,008 57.31%
Eden city Texas 2,766 56.25%
West Liberty city Kentucky 3,435 54.73%
Richwood town Louisiana 3,392 54.39%
Westville town Indiana 5,853 54.30%
Calipatria city California 7,705 54.04%
St. Gabriel city Louisiana 6,677 52.91%
Hinton town Oklahoma 3,196 52.72%
Tiptonville town Tennessee 4,464 52.67%
Wrightsville city Arkansas 2,114 52.41%
Gatesville city Texas 15,751 51.84%
Haysi town Virginia 498 51.41%
Licking city Missouri 3,124 51.18%
Carrabelle city Florida 2,778 51.12%
St. Louis city Michigan 7,482 49.22%
Bayboro town North Carolina 1,263 49.01%
Corcoran city California 24,813 48.84%
Eastville town Virginia 305 48.52%
Granite town Oklahoma 2,065 48.23%
Ione city California 7,918 48.17%
Redgranite village Wisconsin 2,149 47.74%
Reidsville city Georgia 4,944 47.53%
Unadilla city Georgia 3,796 46.47%
Susanville city California 17,947 46.25%
Sandstone city Minnesota 2,849 46.16%
Gunnison city Utah 3,285 46.03%
Urania town Louisiana 1,313 46%
Mayersville town Mississippi 547 45.89%
Edgefield town South Carolina 4,750 45.81%
Bayport city Minnesota 3,471 45.72%
Clarks village Louisiana 1,017 45.43%
Crescent City city California 7,643 45.35%
Ionia city Michigan 11,394 45.16%
McCormick town South Carolina 2,783 44.70%
Epps village Louisiana 854 44.26%
Eloy city Arizona 16,631 43.85%
Danbury town North Carolina 189 41.80%
Chester city Illinois 8,586 41.59%
Stanley city Wisconsin 3,608 41.57%
Baraga village Michigan 2,053 41.55%
Avenal city California 15,505 41.43%
Pinckneyville city Illinois 5,648 41.13%
Moose Lake city Minnesota 2,751 41%
Tehachapi city California 14,414 40.95%
Watonga city Oklahoma 5,111 40.76%
Jackson town Louisiana 3,842 40.66%
Brent city Alabama 4,947 40.57%
Hutchins city Texas 5,338 40.54%
New Lisbon city Wisconsin 2,554 40.13%
La Villa city Texas 1,957 40.01%
Helena city Georgia 2,883 39.75%
Chowchilla city California 18,720 39.08%
Soledad city California 25,738 39.04%
Milan village New Mexico 3,245 38.67%
Anthony town Texas 5,011 38.48%
Cambridge Springs borough Pennsylvania 2,595 38.30%
South Bay city Florida 4,876 38.25%
Mason town Tennessee 1,609 38.22%
Sayre city Oklahoma 4,375 37.71%
Jonesboro city Georgia 4,724 37.60%
Caryville town Florida 411 37.47%
Bonne Terre city Missouri 6,864 37.44%
Calico Rock city Arkansas 1,545 37.15%
Post city Texas 5,376 37.11%
Blythe city California 20,817 37.08%
Hudson town Colorado 2,356 36.97%
Estancia town New Mexico 1,655 36.80%
Bowling Green city Missouri 5,334 36.71%
Vandalia city Missouri 3,899 36.57%
Pine Prairie village Louisiana 1,610 36.40%
Airway Heights city Washington 6,114 35.72%
Tipton city Missouri 3,262 35.35%
Venus town Texas 2,960 35.20%
Pattonsburg city Missouri 348 35.06%
Cadwell town Georgia 528 34.85%
Connell city Washington 4,209 34.33%
Cameron city Missouri 9,933 34.09%
Kingston city Missouri 348 33.91%
Ridgeland town South Carolina 4,036 33.87%
Eddyville city Kentucky 2,554 33.71%

Dramatic examples of prison gerrymandering show the need for new districting practices in the Bayou State.

by Ginger Jackson-Gleich, October 9, 2020

Local governments across Louisiana will engage in redistricting after the 2020 Census. When they do, they will once again face decisions about whether to bestow disproportionate political power upon people who live near correctional facilities. The last time this process unfolded (following the 2010 Census), numerous jurisdictions — including parishes (akin to counties), cities, and towns — formed districts that were highly distorted by prison and jail populations.

For example, Allen Parish gave people living in a district with a federal correctional complex twice as much political power as residents who lived in districts without such a facility. Moreover, because Louisiana has the second-highest incarceration rate in the world and more than a dozen state or federal prisons (as well as dozens of local jails), it is unsurprising that these kinds of power imbalances — the result of “prison gerrymandering” — occur in many places throughout the state.

In addition to popping up in different parts of Louisiana, prison gerrymandering also occurs at numerous levels of government, creating problems at the state level (when district lines are drawn for state legislatures) and in parishes, cities, and towns where prison or jail populations typically constitute even larger portions of local district populations. In addition to undermining notions of representational equality, these population imbalances also create inaccurate pictures of community populations for research and planning purposes (although they do not typically impact federal funding, despite frequent assumptions to the contrary).

As we have explained before, prison gerrymandering happens primarily because the U.S. Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the places in which they are confined, despite the practical reality that (1) most people in prison cannot vote, and many people in jail are effectively barred from doing so (even if eligible), (2) most incarcerated people return to their home communities upon release and remain legal residents of their home addresses even while incarcerated, and (3) local elected officials often have little authority over the lives of people incarcerated within their districts.

While the state legislature in Louisiana engages in prison gerrymandering in drawing state districts, the state’s parishes (and the cities and towns within them) retain the power to utilize Census data to avoid prison gerrymandering when drawing local government districts. Indeed, as the Prison Policy Initiative has previously noted, some local governments in Louisiana have already taken it upon themselves to solve the problem of prison gerrymandering by removing incarcerated people from the districts they have drawn.

Notably, among the parishes with the largest prison populations (proportionally speaking), about half excluded prison populations during redistricting following the 2010 Census. For example, had Claiborne Parish included the prison population contained within its borders, one of the districts in the parish would have been composed entirely of a state prison.

Nonetheless, in many places throughout Louisiana, prison gerrymandering remains a problem. As noted above, Allen Parish is one striking example. The parish’s governing body (its police jury) has seven districts. According to the Census, Allen Parish had a total population of 25,764 in 2010; thus, each of the seven districts in its police jury should have had approximately 3,681 constituents following its 2010 redistricting.

However, Allen Parish relied on non-adjusted Census data to apportion people into those districts, and for one district (District 1) that data included 2,430 people incarcerated at the federal correctional complex within its borders. Using the raw Census data without adjusting it to account for the federal correctional complex meant that 66% of the “constituents” in District 1 ended up being people incarcerated at a federal prison, rather than people who would be meaningfully represented by the district’s elected police juror.

Examples from across the state show that the problem of prison gerrymandering looms large across Louisiana:

  • Allen Parish:
    • Police Jury District 1 (as explained above) includes the people incarcerated at the Oakdale Federal Correctional Complex, such that the incarcerated population accounts for 66% of the district’s “constituents.”
    • Police Jury District 6 includes the people incarcerated at the Allen Correctional Center, such that the incarcerated population accounts for 39% of the district’s “constituents.”
  • Madison Parish:
    • Police Jury District 2 includes the people incarcerated at the Madison Parish Correctional Center, such that the incarcerated population accounts for 37% of the district’s “constituents.”
    • Police Jury District 3 includes the people incarcerated at the Louisiana Transitional Center for Women, such that the incarcerated population accounts for 20% of the district’s “constituents.”
  • Town of Farmerville
    • District C includes the people incarcerated at a local detention center, such that the incarcerated population accounts for 42% of the district’s “constituents.”

Examples like these make clear that prison gerrymandering causes serious distortions to representational equality between constituents. In Allen Parish’s District 1, residents get twice the representation that residents of districts without a correctional facility have. Likewise, in Madison Parish’s District 2 (where the prison constitutes 37% percent of the population), every 63 residents in that district get the same degree of representation as 100 residents living elsewhere. Finally, in Farmerville, the jail in District C constitutes 42% of the district’s population, meaning that 58 residents there have the same political power as 100 residents elsewhere.

While the Census could solve the problem of prison gerrymandering in one fell swoop–by counting incarcerated people at home–it has so far declined to do so. In the absence of such a solution, states, counties, and local governments must act (as some Louisiana state legislators are already attempting to do).

Although it appears unlikely that Louisiana will count incarcerated people at home when drawing state legislative districts after the 2020 Census, cities and parishes can still avoid prison gerrymandering at the local level when they redistrict. Doing so will ensure that Louisiana residents have equal access to their parish, city, and town representatives and a fair say in local government.


One of the most common arguments against prison gerrymandering reform is the fear, among people in prison towns, that their communities will lose out on funding. It's a fear based on a misunderstanding of how federal and state funds are allocated.

by Aleks Kajstura, July 13, 2020

It’s that time of the decade again when the Census Bureau is hoping to count every single person in the country. Even though the April 1 “Census Day” has passed, the Bureau is still trying to convince the roughly 40% of US denizens that have yet to fill out a form that they should be counted. To persuade the hold-outs the Census Bureau, along with their state and local partners, rely on advertising how much money is riding on the count.

On its website where people can fill out the Census form, the Bureau stresses the financial stakes of counting people correctly: “Census results help determine how billions of dollars in federal funding flow into states and communities each year.” Funding makes an appearance in nearly every mention of how Census data is used. For example: “The 2020 Census will determine congressional representation, inform hundreds of billions in federal funding every year, and provide data that will impact communities for the next decade.”

Those statements are true. But some municipalities, desperate not to lose any population in the decennial count, often resort to putting a price tag on each person’s failure to respond. For example, as local officials in Georgia try to ensure that local residents are counted, the local paper peppers in claims like: “If only one person is counted in a house with four people, it will mean $69,000 less in local coffers over a decade.”

But while it’s true that a lot of funding depends in some way on Census data, this funding isn’t a lump sum that can be converted to a dollar amount per head. In fact, the same series of studies referenced in that Georgia newspaper warn against drawing such false conclusions.

A brief by Andrew Reamer, Research Professor at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, gives a very detailed walkthrough of the types of population data used to distribute funding. Reamer’s brief makes it clear that per-head calculations are misleading. For a more digestible overview, try looking at a single state, such as Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Census 2020, Explained: How It Works and What’s at Stake for Massachusetts has a section on the Census’s funding impact, which correctly notes that some programs “may hardly be affected at all by Census counts.”

These details of the Census’s funding impact tie back to a question we’re getting a lot: Does the way people in prison are counted in the Census impact any particular area’s funding?

The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people at the location of the prison rather than as residents of their home addresses. This demonstrably skews a variety of statistical data for prison-hosting communities. And of course, it creates distorted population counts for determining representation in local and state legislative bodies, resulting in prison gerrymandering. But it does not draw in federal or state funding for the community hosting the prison.

Nine states have passed laws ending prison gerrymandering — adjusting their redistricting data to count incarcerated people at home rather than at the location of the prison — and none of these laws will impact funding distributions based on Census counts. New York and Maryland implemented their laws before the 2010 Census, and have not seen any impact to their formula funding. That makes sense, because no funding formula relies on redistricting data.

One of the most common arguments against prison gerrymandering reform is the fear among prison-hosting communities that they will lose out on funding, which they believe is based on the incarcerated population being counted in the prison town. This misunderstanding of how federal and state funds are allocated shouldn’t hold up reform any longer.


The new law makes Virginia the third state this year, and the ninth state in total, to end the practice known as prison gerrymandering.

April 27, 2020

For immediate release — Last week, Virginia passed Senate Bill 717 and its identical House bill, HB 1255, which ensure that people in state prisons will be counted as residents of their home addresses when new legislative districts are drawn. The new law makes Virginia the ninth state to end the practice known as prison gerrymandering, after Colorado and New Jersey passed their own laws earlier this year. Over 30% of US residents now live in a state, county, or municipality that has ended prison gerrymandering.

The Virginia Constitution states that, for the purposes of voting, people in prison remain residents of their hometowns. However, the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the places where they are incarcerated. As a result, when Virginia used Census counts to draw past legislative districts, it unintentionally enhanced the representation of people living in districts containing prisons.

“Virginia’s new law recognizes that ending prison gerrymandering is an important issue of fairness,” said Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. “All districts — some far more than others — send people to prison, but only some districts contain prisons. Counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison gives extra representation to the prison district, dilutes the votes of everyone who does not live next to the state’s largest prison, and distorts the constitutional principle of one person, one vote. This new law offers Virginia voters a fairer data set on which future districts will be drawn.”

prison gerrymandering legislation map

In 2013, Virginia passed House Bill 1339, which ended a state requirement that had forced some local governments to engage in prison gerrymandering. HB 1339 lifted limitations on which counties, cities, and municipalities could exclude incarcerated populations for redistricting purposes. The new law passed last week builds on this progress by explicitly requiring Virginia state and local redistricting officials to count incarcerated people as residents of their home addresses.

Virginia is also considering a constitutional amendment, reforming the state’s redistricting process, that contains similar provisions ending prison gerrymandering. The amendment will be on the ballot for voters to approve in the fall. However, now that SB 717 and HB 1255 have passed, the success or failure of this constitutional amendment will not change how Virginia counts incarcerated people during redistricting.

Over 10 other states introduced legislation to end prison gerrymandering in the current legislative session. “We applaud Virginia for enacting reforms that will allow it to draw fairer state legislative districts,” Kajstura said. “Other states currently considering similar bills will need to act swiftly to ensure that reforms can be implemented for the upcoming redistricting cycle, but unfortunately many states have needed to end their legislative sessions early because of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Virginia’s new law applies only to redistricting, and will not affect federal or state funding distributions.


Colorado moved swiftly, ending prison gerrymandering in a single legislative session.

March 23, 2020

For immediate release — Last Friday (March 20, 2020), Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a bill into law ensuring that people in state prisons will be counted as residents of their home addresses when new legislative districts are drawn. The new law makes Colorado the eighth state to end the practice known as prison gerrymandering, after New Jersey passed its own law earlier this year.

The Colorado Constitution states that, for the purposes of voting, people in prison remain residents of their hometowns. However, the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the places where they are incarcerated.

As a result, when Colorado used Census counts to draw past legislative districts, it unintentionally enhanced the representation of people living in districts containing prisons. The result of this distortion was dramatic: In three state legislative districts, people in prison accounted for 12%, 8%, and 5% of the district’s population. Each of these districts, therefore, had far fewer actual district residents than any other district in the state.

“Colorado’s new law recognizes that ending prison gerrymandering is an important issue of fairness,” said Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. “All districts — some far more than others — send people to prison, but only some districts contain prisons. Counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison gives extra representation to the prison district, dilutes the votes of everyone who does not live next to the state’s largest prison, and distorts the constitutional principle of one person, one vote. This new law offers Colorado voters a fairer data set on which future districts will be drawn.”

prison gerrymandering legislation map

“More accurate district maps, a fairer count of Coloradans, and better population data means a stronger democracy,” sponsors Kerry Tipper and James Coleman argued in The Denver Post last month. “This bill will make a difference for everyone who wants to ensure their districts have the most accurate representation possible.”

The legislation, passed as HB 20-1010, applies only to redistricting and will not affect federal or state funding distributions.

Over 10 other states introduced legislation to end prison gerrymandering in the current session. “We applaud Colorado for enacting common-sense solutions in a single legislative session, and other states currently considering similar bills should follow its example,” Kajstura said.


A new resource from the Prison Policy Initiative and State Innovation Exchange.

by Aleks Kajstura, March 5, 2020

report thumbnailSiX and the Prison Policy Initiative have released a guide to ending prison gerrymandering for state legislators. Whether you’re new to prison gerrymandering, working on a bill already filed this session, or somewhere in between, there’s something for everyone in this guide — it includes lessons from our previous advocacy, detailed policy recommendations, talking points, and much more.


by Wanda Bertram, February 19, 2020

The Virginia House of Delegates is expected to vote within the next two weeks on SJ18, a constitutional amendment to reform the state’s redistricting process. The amendment and its enabling legislation would also make Virginia the 8th state to end “prison gerrymandering” — ensuring that people in state prisons are counted as residents of their home addresses, and not their prison cells, when new legislative districts are drawn.

Last week, the Senate equivalent of the amendment (SJ18) and enabling legislation (SB203) passed out of the upper chamber. Meanwhile, the House has passed enabling legislation (HB758), but has yet to put the amendment on the floor. Both houses must pass this redistricting reform package by the first week of March so the amendment can go to Virginia voters on November’s ballot.

The House of Delegates should follow the Senate’s lead and pass SJ18. This amendment will bring Virginia one step closer to ensuring equal representation for their residents — a tremendous step forward for civil rights.


Over 25% of U.S. residents now live in a state, county, or municipality that has ended prison gerrymandering.

January 21, 2020

Easthampton, Mass. — Today, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill ending prison gerrymandering — the practice of using prisons to transfer power away from the home communities of incarcerated people, and give it to legislative districts that contain prisons. The state will now draw districts with their home, not prison, addresses.

Senate Bill 758 passed the Senate in February 2019, and the Assembly on January 13, 2020. The bill, now law, caps a campaign to make New Jersey the 7th state to end prison gerrymandering and ensure equal representation for all of its residents. Over 25% of US residents now live in a state, county, or municipality that has ended prison gerrymandering. (The other states are New York, California, Maryland, Delaware, Nevada, and Washington State).

map showing the progress of states and counties in rejecting prison gerrymandering as of January 2020

This legislative effort spanned multiple sessions and was supported by many groups, most recently including the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. The bill’s sponsors included Senators Cunningham and Cruz-Perez, and Assemblymembers Sumter, Mukherji, and Quijano. The sponsors emphasized that the bill will have no effect on federal or state funds in New Jersey. All funding programs have their own data sources that do not rely on redistricting data.

“Prison gerrymandering is a fixable problem of political representation caused by the growth of prison populations in past decades,” said Prison Policy Initiative Legal Director Aleks Kajstura. Like most states, New Jersey bases its legislative districts on U.S. Census Bureau data. Unfortunately, the Census counts incarcerated people as if they were residents of the correctional facility where they happen to be on Census day. When states like New Jersey use this data for redistricting, it leads to unequal representation: People who live near prisons are given extra representation in the state legislature, while every other resident in the state receives less representation.

Senate Bill 758 is a simple state-based solution to a problem that should have been corrected by the federal government. The bill uses the state’s administrative records to reassign incarcerated people to their home addresses before redistricting. Ideally, the U.S. Census Bureau will change its policy and count incarcerated people as residents of their home addresses in the 2030 Census, but for now states should be prepared to have their own solutions in place.

New York and Maryland have already passed and implemented similar laws to count people in prison at home for this round of redistricting, and both states’ laws were successfully defended in court. California, Delaware, Nevada, and Washington State passed legislation that will take effect after the 2020 Census.

As more states take on the task of adjusting Census data to make it usable for drawing equal districts, the Census Bureau has taken some small but very helpful steps. For the first time, the 2020 Census will include correctional population data within the main redistricting dataset (the PL 94-171 file). Identifying the correctional facilities makes the data-crunching easier for states that end prison gerrymandering on their own, and will be particularly useful for states with short redistricting deadlines, such as New Jersey. This data will give redistricting officials the Census counts of people in correctional facilities at the location of the facility — enabling states to subtract incarcerated people from the prison location and, in conjunction with the state’s own home address data, reallocate them back home for that state’s redistricting.

States should follow the lead of New Jersey and Governor Murphy and end prison gerrymandering to ensure equal representation for all their residents.


How a focus on accurate data and on Native communities helped end prison gerrymandering in Washington State.

by Aleks Kajstura, December 2, 2019

Prison Policy Initiative Legal Director Aleks Kajstura sat down with Heather Villanueva, Deputy Director of More Equitable Democracy to discuss their recent win in Washington that made that state the 5th to end the practice of giving extra political representation to the legislative districts that host prisons. (Shortly after Washington’s bill became law, Nevada became the 6th state to pass this legislation.)

Aleks:

Can you tell us a little about More Equitable Democracy and how fixing the Census Bureau’s prison miscount fit into its mission?

Heather:

More Equitable Democracy is a nonprofit advocacy organization working at the intersection of racial justice and democracy reform. One of the things we are concerned about is the basic building blocks of redistricting: the Census. Right now the census is coming up and facing quite a few serious financial and logistical challenges. A compromised Census will have serious implications for communities of color and for fair political representation. One of our priorities is to bridge our traditional push for full participation in the census count with larger policy goals of redistricting and redistricting reform.

For More Equitable Democracy, we tend to take a bigger view than just redistricting reform because we want to see bigger changes than just who draws the lines. It’s really about how the whole system of elections is created to either lift up some voices or to silence and put significant barriers in front of others. We’re really interested in developing new ways to build strong coalitions of reformers — and people of color in particular — to really transform our democracy.

Aleks:

You are a new organization working in a number of states on a number of issues and the Washington bill to end prison gerrymandering was one of your first victories. How did you pick this bill to work on?

Heather:

More Equitable Democracy seeks to make structural improvements to democracy and we identified Washington as one of a handful of states where we think we can make the biggest impact. As we considered what issues to prioritize in Washington, we knew that prison gerrymandering reform was gaining traction nationally, but had not been pursued in Washington. So when we saw legislative interest in ending prison gerrymandering, we knew it was an important issue and one that would be a great fit for our other democracy reform efforts in the state, including ranked choice voting, and securing $15 million for community-based census outreach to support an accurate count.

Aleks:

In the past, we’ve talked about how Washington has fewer clusters or large prisons than states like New York and Maryland where the vote dilutive impact of prison gerrymandering is quite stark. Can you tell me why you thought it important to focus on prison gerrymandering even in states like Washington where the numerical impact is not as extreme?

Heather:

That’s right, judging by the numbers, the prison gerrymandering problem in Washington State could be viewed as relatively minor. But the state draws its districts with far greater population equality than most, so Washington was a good place to focus on improving the accuracy of the redistricting data. As you know, what is important about the Census and redistricting is not just that everyone is counted, but where they are counted.

Beyond the simple calculations of vote dilution, we thought it was important to highlight the unique harms on Native American communities. I’m glad that we could help provide a platform for voices from these often overlooked communities, and I thought that the testimony of Patricia Whitefoot of the Yakama Nation was particularly effective raising the harm caused by counting their disproportionately incarcerated members in western Washington prisons rather than in their homes on the Yakama Reservation and discussing how this overlapped with other harmful redistricting decisions.

Aleks:

Ending prison gerrymandering is the rare kind of reform that can benefit almost everyone in the state in one way or another. About the only people who have nothing to gain from reform are the people who live immediately adjacent to the state’s largest prison. Sometimes, though, reform efforts get hijacked by the false myth that changing electoral data will impact funding received by rural communities, and the effort stalls when faced with so much false urban vs rural tension. I’m really impressed that Washington (and Nevada) managed to pass this legislation in just one session, whereas other states have struggled for years. What do you think that folks in other states should see as keys to your success?

Heather:

I think getting the bill passed was a combination of making the right choices at the start and then a lot of hard work.

It probably helped us that legislators were fairly new to the issue of prison gerrymandering, so we were able to keep ahead of any misinformation before it became entrenched.

We also used some messaging that was pretty different than that used in New York and Maryland and in other states. Rather than talk about stopping “gerrymandering” we focused on improving the accuracy of the data. In fact “ensuring accurate redistricting” became the bill’s tagline.

Focusing on data accuracy made a lot of sense in Washington State because we didn’t have the New York-style big numerical impact of prison gerrymandering with the obvious inequality and immediate impact on outcomes. In addition, focusing on “accurate redistricting” allowed us to avoid the political squabbling that “gerrymandering” conversations often illicit and instead start and end with something that everyone agrees on: the idea that the underlying data should be accurate.

This accuracy framework was also a natural fit with our organizational quest for structural reforms for a better democracy. As an organization, More Equitable Democracy does not just focus on what happens when the maps are drawn, we look at the entire process from the bottom up.

Aleks:

That’s a good point. I know you chose that strategy because you thought it was best for the state of Washington, but this accuracy framing will be really important for the Census Bureau to hear when they review the issue again for the 2030 Census. And speaking of the Census Bureau, that now six states have chosen to fix this flaw in the Census, it really increases the pressure on the Bureau to provide a national solution.


Nevada moved swiftly, ending prison gerrymandering in a single legislative session.

May 31, 2019

For immediate release — Yesterday, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak signed a bill into law ensuring that people in state prisons will be counted as residents of their home addresses when new legislative districts are drawn. The new law makes Nevada the sixth state to end the practice known as prison gerrymandering, after Washington passed its own law just last week.

The Nevada Constitution states that, for the purposes of voting, people in prison should be counted as residents of their hometowns. However, the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the places where they are incarcerated. As a result, when Nevada used Census counts to draw past legislative districts, it unintentionally enhanced the weight of votes cast in districts containing prisons — at the expense of all other districts in the state.

“Nevada’s new law recognizes that ending prison gerrymandering is an important issue of fairness,” said Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. “All districts — some far more than others — send people to prison, but only some districts contain prisons. Counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison gives extra representation to the prison district, dilutes the votes of everyone who does not live next to the state’s largest prison, and distorts the constitutional principle of one person, one vote. This new law offers Nevada voters a fairer data set on which future districts will be drawn.”

prison gerrymandering legislation map

The legislation, passed as AB 450, applies only to redistricting and will not affect federal or state funding distributions.

Six other states have legislation to end prison gerrymandering pending in the current session. “We applaud Washington and Nevada for enacting common-sense solutions in a single legislative session,” Kajstura said. “Other states currently considering similar bills should follow its example.”



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