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.

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