Prisoners and the Census: A Distortion of Democracy

Olivia Cummings is a 2009 graduate of Smith College and a research intern at the Prison Policy Initiative. Most recently she co-authored a report with Peter Wagner on prison-based gerrymandering in Maryland. Olivia will begin a Ph.D. program in history in the fall.

The non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative documents the impact of mass incarceration on individuals, communities, and the national welfare. PPI is most famous for documenting the distortion in our democratic process caused by the Census Bureau counting people where they are confined, not where they come from.

In less than a month, the Census Bureau will collect population data across the country that will be used to adjust legislative districts in accordance with the Supreme Court’s “One Person One Vote” rule. In Massachusetts, the Census Bureau counts prisoners as residents of the towns in which they are incarcerated, even though they cannot vote and remain legal residents of the places they lived prior to their incarceration. State and local governments use the Census to apportion political power on the basis of equally sized legislative districts. Crediting thousands of disenfranchised people, a disproportionate number of whom are urban men of color, to other communities, the majority of which are non-urban and white, has staggering implications for American democracy. Inaccurate population data undermines the democratic process and the constitutional guarantee of equal access to political representation.

What does this mean for state and local government in Massachusetts?

In Massachusetts, a State House of Representatives district is supposed to contain 39,682 people, plus or minus 1,984 people. The legislative commission that drew Massachusetts’ districts in 2001 met the federal standard of population equality only because it included prisoners in the overall population count. Five House districts do not meet federal minimum requirements without the prison populations. District 37 in Middlesex County deviates from federal requirements by -5.48%, District 9 in Norfolk County deviates by -5.68%, District 14 in Worcester County deviates by -6.4%, District 7 in Hampden County deviates by 8.06%, and District 3 in Suffolk County deviates  by 8.2%.

This means that approximately 95 people who reside in a prison district carry as much political power in the State House of Representatives as 100 residents elsewhere. These legislative districts lack sufficient population to meet accepted “One Person One Vote” standards without counting disenfranchised prisoners as part of their population base. Massachusetts’ decision to rely on flawed Census counts of the prison population artificially enhances the representation afforded to districts with prisons and dilutes the voting power of everyone else.

On Census Day, there will be more than 2.3 million people behind bars across the United States. That is a population larger than the fourth largest city in the country, larger than fifteen individual states, and larger than the combined populations of our three smallest states. Because this population disproportionately consists of African American and Latino men, this is a critical issue of civil rights and the constitutional guarantee of equal representation.

What can Massachusetts do to fix this problem?

States are required by federal law to redistrict each decade, but are not required to use federal Census data to do so. In fact, there is a long tradition of state and local governments fixing shortcomings in Census data, including Gardner, Massachusetts, a city that has taken the lead in excluding prison populations when drawing districts. This year, for the first time, the Census Bureau will be publishing an early data file that will assist states and counties in finding correctional facilities in the census data.

Massachusetts can collect the home addresses of incarcerated people and adjust the Census data prior to redistricting to count these populations at home. In doing so, legislative districts will reflect actual populations, and all voting residents will have equal access to political representation. Furthermore, counting prisoners where they resided prior to incarceration and, in the majority of cases, will return, will afford fair and equal representation to largely urban and minority districts. These changes in legislative districting would ensure compliance with state law and fulfill the Supreme Court rule that one person casts one vote, no more and no less.


“Importing Constituents: Prisons and Political Clout in Massachusetts” (Prison Policy Initiative)

“States Are Authorized to Adjust Census Data to End Prison-Based Gerrymandering and Many Already Do” (Prison Policy Initiative)

“Incarcerated People Are Transported to Rural Prisons, But Remain Residents of Their Home Communities” (Prison Policy Initiative)

“A Dilution of Democracy: Prison-Based Gerrymandering” (Demos)


4 thoughts on “Prisoners and the Census: A Distortion of Democracy

  1. Thanks Olivia!

    I’m curious, what is the push-back against this idea of changing where prisoners are counted? Are there people actively working (against PPI’s recommendation) to ensure that prisoners are not counted where they actually live/come from?

  2. Just to add on to Beths’ comment, is there any evidence of there being a concerted effort by communities to grow prison populations in order to have legislative districts adjusted ? Or is this just an unfortunate byproduct of a lack of foresight and understanding on the part of the census?

  3. Olivia: You tell us what Massachusetts can do–thanks for that. But what might we do as individuals?

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