by Aleks Kajstura, July 14, 2017
Resurfacing debunked arguments, Governor Christie just vetoed a bill that would have ended prison gerrymandering in New Jersey. Senate Bill 587 passed the Senate in November, and the Assembly on Monday, May 22.
The Governor’s actions perpetuate a reliance on flawed data that results in using prison populations to pad the legislative districts that contain prisons. This enhances the weight of votes cast in those districts, while diluting every vote cast by every other person in the state. In practice, prison gerrymandering uses prisons to transfer power away from home communities of incarcerated people to those who live near prisons.
The problem is amplified by New Jersey’s voting laws. Like in most states, people convicted of felonies in New Jersey cannot vote while they are incarcerated, and those who are incarcerated for misdemeanors or awaiting trial vote absentee in their home districts. This makes sense; after all, people have much closer ties to their home community than where they happen to be incarcerated on Census Day. Incarcerated people are transferred frequently between facilities, generally staying at any given facility for just 7-9 months (a fact ignored by Christie). This means that someone who votes while incarcerated is required to vote for their representative in their home district, but on paper gets counted toward as a constituent of the representative of the prison district. This mismatch creates unequal representation.
And New Jersey had already taken steps to ameliorate the effects of prison gerrymandering on school boards; extending those equal representation protections to state legislative districts was the logical next step.
Senate Bill 587 was a simple state-based solution to a problem that should have been corrected by the federal government. The bill would have used the state’s administrative records to reassign incarcerated people to their home addresses before redistricting. And to address a common misconception related to the distribution of funding (which Christie also alluded to): the bill would have no effect on the distribution of federal or state funds — all funding programs have their own data sources that do not rely on redistricting data.
Ideally, the U.S. Census Bureau will change its policy and count incarcerated people as residents of their home addresses. And last year, the Census Bureau sought comments on its current practice of counting incarcerated people at the location of the correctional facility in which they happen to be on Census day, rather than at home where they live. The Census Bureau had yet to release a final rule on where it will count incarcerated people 2020 census.
States need to take action now, on their own while waiting for the Census Bureau to correct the way it counts incarcerated people. There is still time before the next redistricting cycle for New Jersey to join California, Delaware, Maryland and New York in ensuring equal representation for their residents by ending prison gerrymandering on its own.