When legislators rely on the Census Bureau's prison counts to draw legislative districts, they unintentionally give extra representation to the districts that contain prisons and dilute the votes of everyone else. It's called "prison gerrymandering." It plays out in Wisconsin on two levels:
Prison gerrymandering violates the constitutional principle of "one person, one vote." The Supreme Court requires districts to be based on equal population in order to give each resident the same access to government. But a longstanding flaw in the Census counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison location, even though they cannot vote and are not a part of the surrounding community.
Wisconsin law considers incarcerated people to be residents of their home addresses: a person's residence is determined by "where the person's habitation is fixed, without any present intent to move, and to which, when absent, the person intends to return." (Wis. Stat. § 6.10) Since most incarcerated people intend to leave prison and do not intend to return, prison is not their residence. Using the Census Bureau's prison count data for redistricting purposes is inconsistent with Wisconsin's residence law.
Crediting all of Wisconsin's incarcerated people to a few locations enhances the political clout of the people who live near prisons, while diluting the voting power of the residents of all other districts in the state.
Because state law is read to require prison gerrymandering (70 Wis. Op. Atty. Gen. 80 (1981)), Wisconsin provides many dramatic examples of the problem:
Nevertheless, there are also a number of examples of communities successfully rejecting the Census Bureau's prison counts:
A state constitutional amendment had been previously introduced in both chambers to require the state and local governments to draw legislature districts on the basis of corrected Census Bureau data adjusted to exclude incarcerated people at their home addresses.
It’s impossible to include everyone who is working toward fair districting in Wisconsin, but if you are looking to get involved, these are some of the people and organizations you might want to contact:
A summary of the problem with an emphasis on legislative solutions for the state. Originally prepared for a Midwest Democracy Network conference in February 2013:
Fact sheets originally prepared in 2009:
Regional impact fact sheets prepared in 2020: