Sixty-six percent of the inmates in the state of New York come from New York City. But 91 percent of them are incarcerated upstate, in communities where they have long been counted by the U.S. census.
On paper, this means prisoners belong not to the communities from which they've come (and to which they eventually will return), but to places where they can neither vote, check out a library book or attend a local school.
The counting quirk sounds like a quandary for demographers. But it also means, come gerrymandering time, that many urban black communities look smaller than they actually are, a disproportionate number of their residents having been counted in the rural areas that are home to penitentiaries.
Most states redraw political districts every 10 years using census data, and so this counting practice has the effect of increasing the political power of anyone who lives near a prison, while decreasing the power of the communities where prisoners legally reside.
Critics disdainfully call the practice "prison-based gerrymandering."
During the 2000 census, 43,000 New York City residents were counted upstate in this way. Remove them, and seven state senate districts would not have met minimum population requirements and would have had to be redrawn, setting off a chain reaction throughout the state, according to a report released this week by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
This counting method "artificially inflates the population count — and thus, the political influence — of the districts where prisons and jails are located," wrote the authors of the report, "Captive Constituents: Prison-Based Gerrymandering & The Distortion of Our Democracy." "At the same time," they add, "this practice reduces the political power of everyone else. The viability of our communities, integrity of our democracy and basic principles of equality suffer as a result."
African-Americans comprise 12.7 percent of the U.S. population. But because they make up 41.3 percent of the federal and state prison population, this type of gerrymandering disproportionately affects black communities. Prisons are also often located in rural areas — non-metropolitan America houses 20 percent of the national population, but 60 percent of new prison construction, according to the report — further distorting political muscle.
"It is all too reminiscent," the report says, "of the infamous 'three-fifths compromise,' whereby enslaved and disfranchised African Americans were counted to inflate the number of constituents - and thus, the political influence - of Southern states before the Civil War."
The report also cites the Iowa town of Anamosa, which was divided in 2002 into four city council wards of about 1,370 people each. One ward, however, was home to a state penitentiary with 1,320 inmates. In effect, the district held only about 50 true constituents who had the same political representation as wards 45 times as large — a violation of the spirit of the Supreme Court's "one person, one vote" apportionment principle.
The census counts some other groups similarly: College students are recorded in their dorm rooms, not their parents' homes, and military personnel are counted on base, not at their permanent residence. But both are integrated into the community — and can use its public services - in a way prisoners are not.
In total, about 2 million prisoners in the country are counted this way — enough people, according to the NAACP, to qualify by themselves for five votes in the Electoral College. And in 173 counties nationwide, the report adds, "half of the purported African-American population are not true residents, but are actually prisoners imported from elsewhere."
The problem has grown with the rate of incarceration (the NAACP partly blames the "war on drugs"), and the Census Bureau for the first time this year is becoming attuned to it. The bureau will provide prisoner data to states following this spring's decennial census in time for officials to use it in their 2010 redistricting. And this April, Maryland became the first state to pass legislation requiring redistricting officials to count inmates at their actual homes, using the new census data to identify them. Delaware is poised to follow next.
Some argue it doesn't matter where we count inmates, because most states don't let them vote. But the census counts everyone — including non-voting illegal immigrants and children — and we apportion political districts by total population, not just voting residents.
The NAACP points to the two states that do permit inmates to vote: Maine and Vermont. Both send prisoners absentee ballots from their home communities, a common-sense sign of where their political muscle would most logically be exercised.