As lawmakers draw lines for congressional, state legislative districts, and local governmental agencies, many people worry that mass incarceration will unfairly shift the balance of political power to rural White communities.
There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in America’s jails and prisons and most of them are from Black and Latino communities, but they are housed in rural White communities — places where their vote doesn’t count but their body counts for purposes of representation.
“This is very reminiscent of the Three-Fifths Compromise, of how Black and Brown bodies are still being used to this day in most places around the United States to advantage White votes and White political influence,” Brianna Remster told the Washington Post. Remster is an associate professor in Villanova University’s Department of Sociology and Criminology.
The Three-fifths Compromise is where framers of the U.S. Constitution agreed to count enslaved Black people, who had no political power, as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of determining the number of congressional seats allocated to Southern states.
Remster and her colleague Rory Kramer worked together to study the effects of prison gerrymandering on political power in Pennsylvania.
Kramer told the Post that prison gerrymandering strips power from entire communities because it deprives them of the full voting power they are entitled to under the doctrine of one-person, one-vote.
“It’s not just about them or their families,” Kramer added. “It’s the person down the street; it’s the victim of their crime who lives in the same neighborhood; it’s grandma down the street who’s just lived in that neighborhood for 70 years. It’s actually harming all their political power.”
Since 1850 the Census Bureau has counted prisoners as residents of the communities where they are imprisoned, instead of the communities where they hail from and probably will return to after they serve their sentence. It’s because of the bureau’s “usual residence rule,” which defines a person’s residence as the place where they usually eat and sleep, according to the Post.
There are 12 states that now count prisoners as residents of their home communities for the purposes of political representation, according to the Prison Gerrymandering Project, part of the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative.
Nevada is among the growing number of states that are now required to count prisoners based on their last known address. This is because of a 2019 law banning “prison gerrymandering.”
However, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorneys are threatening to sue because Nevada prison officials say they only have usable addresses for 6,275 people out of the 12,214 counted in the 2020 census, or about 51%, according to The Associated Press.
“The State Demographer is obligated to not use information that it knows is inaccurate, and the Legislature and other governmental entities are obligated to not reapportion representation based upon the inaccurate population estimates,” ACLU attorneys Holly Welborn and Chris Peterson wrote.
Almost 40 states still use the practice of prison gerrymandering, including states with high incarceration rates like Texas and Florida, the report said.