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November 2, 2021

On Election Day, an encouraging report about moves away from prison gerrymandering

NBC News has this new encouraging piece that seems fitting for Election Day 2021. The article is fully headlined "States rethink 'prison gerrymandering' in 2020 redistricting process: More than a dozen states are changing how they handle incarcerated Americans in redistricting maps, unwinding a practice critics call 'prison gerrymandering'." Here are excerpts:

More than a dozen states are changing how they factor incarcerated Americans in redistricting maps this year, unwinding a longstanding practice that critics call “prison gerrymandering.”

The changes were spurred by state and national advocacy over concerns on how mass incarceration and the increasingly partisan process of drawing political district lines for elections was affecting people of color in state and local elections, and research that helped indicate how much communities of color were losing because of these changes.

"When you have people sharing their stories about what it feels like to have your body counted to inflate the vote of prison staff who honestly might be abusing you on any given day, to hurt your family and community's representation back home is just so emotional and really moving," said Villanova University Professor Brianna Remster, who has studied the effects of this practice on states. "People sharing their stories is really what got lots of folks thinking about it."...

Counting incarcerated residents at the site of their prison puts large blocks of residents in districts where the vast majority cannot vote and likely have no ties.  In practice, experts say, it allocates prisoners' political representation to often rural and white districts where prisons are located at the expense of urban, more diverse districts where incarcerated people lived before their convictions.  Changing the maps so that prisoners are counted in their home districts would reverse that in many places.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan criminal justice-focused think tank, Washington, Virginia, New Jersey, Nevada, Illinois, Connecticut, Colorado, and California have all passed legislation in the last few years adding or expanding policies to count at least some prisoners in their home districts in some or all local, state, or federal district lines, instead of at the location of their prison.  Those states join Maryland and New York, which started placing incarcerated residents at their last known address in the 2010 redistricting cycle; Maryland does so for both state, federal, and county districts, while New York made the change in state and local districts.

Other states are making the change during this cycle, including Delaware, where legislation from 2010 will be implemented this year.  Pennsylvania’s redistricting commission also recently decided to return prisoners whose sentences would expire by the end of the decade to their home districts, and more states are lining up to follow.  Montana’s redistricting commission is reportedly considering similar reforms while Rhode Island’s commission has said it will address the issue soon.  In New York, voters will weigh a ballot measure on Tuesday that would expand the reform to the state’s Congressional districts and codify the change into the state constitution....

Illinois’ legislation won’t be implemented until the next redistricting cycle, but in total, at least 12 states will deploy legislative maps that put some incarcerated Americans back in their home districts this year. In total, approximately half the nation now lives in a state that's formally rejected the practice.  The laws and policies vary on the mechanics — like how prisoners are returned to their home districts within the data, which legislative district lines are affected, whether the change applies to federal or state prisoners or both — but experts say the change will have a considerable effect on communities of color....

The numbers aren't big enough to influence Congressional districts, experts said, but significant numbers are seen in state and more local level districts.  According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 40 percent of one state House district in New Hampshire is incarcerated people.  In Connecticut, state House District 59 is 14 percent incarcerated, the group said. Drill down into the smallest county-level district maps and the numbers get bigger.  In Juneau County, Wisconsin, 80 percent of the county's District 15 are incarcerated, giving the handful of eligible voters there enormous political power.

November 2, 2021 at 09:22 AM | Permalink

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