The NAACP and a handful of voters filed a lawsuit on Thursday to strike down the map for the Connecticut legislature before the 2020 election. The plaintiffs say that lawmakers are unconstitutionally drawing district lines when they count prisoners as part of the population of the place where they’re incarcerated.
Connecticut redraws its electoral districts every 10 years and uses the population data in each district to do so. When the state draws those new lines, it counts prisoners as part of the population where the prison is located.
The challengers say the practice inflates the population in rural areas where the prisons are, increasing their political representation at the expense of the home districts of prisoners, which is where the NAACP says they should be counted. Even though the state counts prisoners as part of the population for purposes of drawing district lines, it prohibits them from voting while they are incarcerated.
Most other states count prisoners like Connecticut does, and the NAACP said the lawsuit was the first of its kind to challenge prison gerrymandering on a statewide basis. According to The Associated Press, Maryland, Delaware, California and New York are the only states that have passed laws requiring prisoners to be counted in their home district, not where they’re incarcerated, for the purposes of drawing legislative lines.
“By counting prisoners in the districts where they are imprisoned instead of their pre-incarceration residences, prison gerrymandering dilutes the votes of residents in their home communities, who are disproportionately African-American and Latino, as compared to residents in other communities and districts,” the lawsuit said.
The suit was filed in federal court in Connecticut on behalf of the national and state chapters of the NAACP, as well as five Connecticut voters who say their voting power is being diluted. They claim that prison gerrymandering violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.
The suit notes that many of the state’s prisons are concentrated in more rural areas of the state, while the people held in them are from urban areas. The plaintiffs say the process means that rural voters get more outsize influence because prisoners cannot vote while they are incarcerated, and politicians don’t interact with them. Politicians elected in urban districts generally represent more people. The NAACP and the voters say the process dilutes the voting power of those who live in the districts.
“It’s a violation of the basic ‘one person, one vote principle,’ which says each person’s vote has to count the same,” said Rich Medina, a member of the Rule of Law clinic at Yale Law School, which is representing the plaintiffs in the case. “If you’re sharing a vote with 499 people, your vote is inflated compared with someone who has to share the same representative with 999 people.”
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and Secretary of State Denise Merrill, both Democrats, are named as defendants in the suit.
Jaclyn Severance, a spokeswoman for Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen (D) declined to comment on the suit, saying the state would respond in court.
Aleks Kajstura, legal director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said Connecticut was particularly ripe for a lawsuit challenging prison gerrymandering because it was a state with a strong urban-rural divide.
The suit notes that lawmakers are taking action after proposals to address prison gerrymandering failed in the legislature in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016.
“The same forces that are empowered by prison gerrymandering are the same legislators that have been fighting against this. It’s hard to fix a problem that shifts political power if you’re on the losing side of that,” Kajstura said.
Germano Kimbro, a 58-year-old formerly incarcerated voter who lives in New Haven and is one of the plaintiffs in the case said it wasn’t fair that his vote was more diluted because of his address.
“My vote shouldn’t count less than someone else’s just because they live near a state prison,” he said.