March 23, 2010
New York Times
The Census Bureau took an important first step toward electoral fairness when it announced that it would publish data on prison populations earlier than in the past, in time for the next round of legislative redistricting. This data, which will become available in the spring of 2011, will make it easy for state lawmakers to draw honest legislative districts made up of real residents instead of falsely inflated districts made up partly of prison inmates whose homes are often far away.
The early data will be welcome in states and localities that want to put an end to prison-based gerrymandering. But the real solution is for the Census Bureau to begin counting inmates at their homes instead of counting them as “residents” of their prisons.
The practice mattered little decades ago when the prison population was relatively small. But with about 1.4 million people in prison today, prison-based gerrymandering can shift political power from one end of a state or county or to another.
The practice persists even though the laws of most states say that prisons are not legitimate residences. But even lawmakers who represent prison districts are beginning to see that prison-based gerrymandering offends the principle of one person, one vote.
According to a new analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, a research group, about 100 counties already remove prison inmates from the population count, and others may soon join them. Beyond that, more than a half dozen state legislatures are considering new laws that would require prison inmates to be taken out of the count for redistricting or counted at their homes.
It is too late to count prison inmates at their homes, not their cells, for the 2010 census. There is no excuse for not doing it in 2020.