Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Redistricting -- prison gerrymandering

In testimony before the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, several people have expressed concern over census data relating to persons incarcerated in prisons.  If not properly considered, prison populations will inflate the political power of voters in districts with prisons.

The best explanation I've encountered on the subject is in Phoenix Magazine. Reporter Amanda Crawford (now Arizona correspondent for Bloomberg News) masterfully described the need in several rural Arizona counties to replace jobs from declining mining and agriculture industries.  Anticipated or not, the transition to prison based economy brought demographic changes that complicate political (especially redistricting) considerations.

In the simplest of terms, the 2010 US Census counted prison populations in the towns and counties housing the particular corrections facility.  Yet, the Arizona Constitution says prisoners are not to be considered as residents where the prison is physically located.

To illustrate a hypothetical scenario, let's say each legislative district is supposed to represent a population of 100,000 people.  If 30,000 of the people in, for example Eloy and Florence, are incarcerated, then the remaining 70,000 people have the same political power (to elect lawmakers) as 100,000 people in districts without a prison population.  So, if I live in Tempe, it would take 10 people in my district to match the voting power of 7 people in the district with the prison.

The dilemma is further exacerbated by the fact that, in our state, prisoners are more likely to be members of a minority protected by the Voting Rights Act.  This further shifts voting power and the associated representation in lawmaking bodies away from towns, counties and districts with higher minority populations at the same time inflating the representation of rural communities that tend to have higher Caucasian voting populations.

I'm not sure I've been able, in this short blog post, to clarify the issue at all.  However, Crawford's article does what I could not, so read it and you will better understand the complicated relationship between prisons and redistricting.

Another great resource for insight into this subject is at http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/


  1. Hi Steve.

    The Prison Policy Initiative is the main group fighting prison-based gerrymandering. Check out their site: http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/


  2. I was happy to see this issue come up. I had not previously considered how prisoners were counted for redistricting.