THE BLOG
09/03/2010 11:27 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Is Prison-Based Gerrymandering?

The issue of prison-based gerrymandering has gotten a lot of ink lately around the country, so to better explain it for a wider audience, I thought I'd open up this space to one of my favorite people I met during the making of Gerrymandering: Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative. Peter's been almost single-handedly beating the drum on this issue for a few years now, and has scored a number of significant legislative successes thus far in his fight. I won't be surprised if we look back a few years from now and find that he's fixed this problem in every state across the country. He's proof positive that individuals can still create major change in a dysfunctional political climate.

With further ado, here's Peter....

The basic idea behind our system of representative democracy is that equal numbers of people should have equal influence over the legislative process. After each Census, legislators reshape the legislative districts to equalize the populations in each district. But all too often, legislators manipulate the line drawing process for partisan advantage.

Gerrymandering might be the best way to steal an election short of outright fraud, but as Jeff has explained in a previous column, the fact that it operates through subtlety exercised behind closed doors makes mobilizing people for reform rather challenging.

By moving a line a few hundred feet, legislators can ensure the outcome of an election months or years later. The only thing sneakier than manipulating the line drawing process might be drawing those lines with data legislators know is flawed.

The Census Bureau counts people in prison as if they were residents of the prison cells. Under state laws, however people in prison remain residents of their pre-incarceration addresses, and the average state prison sentence is less than 34 months anyway. All states but two bar prisoners from voting, and this disproportionately young, male, urban, Black and Latino population is then counted as living in one of 1,500 prisons concentrated in rural America. Using prison populations to inflate the populations of the districts that contain prisons thus serves to dilute the political power of everyone else.

It's almost the perfect crime. A legislator gets extra influence without having to be accountable to more constituents, and the data says the district is legit.

In the film, Jeff and I travel to a small city in rural Iowa that has become the national symbol of how prisons in the Census can distort the electoral process. In Anamosa, we meet the man who won a city council seat to the Second Ward without being a candidate or even voting for himself. His wife and a neighbor voted him in to office. The problem in that election wasn't voter apathy. It was a lack of voters. Virtually the entire Second Ward in Anamosa was incarcerated at the state's largest prison.

While the other city wards each had more than 1,300 residents, the ward with the prison had only 56. As a result, the handful of real residents who lived next to the prison had 25 times the influence over city affairs as people who lived elsewhere.

One thing we didn't see in Anamosa was a politician boasting about how happy they are that prisoners can't vote. To the contrary, the former city councilor we met saw himself as representing the entire city, and was one of the first to sign the petition to eliminate the prison district. And thankfully, putting democracy above self-interest isn't confined to Iowa.

Recent stories out of the rural New York cities of Rome and Hudson as well as Oneida County all feature elected officials expressing a willingness to stop including prison populations in their districts. Most of the time, these legislators weren't aware that their districts were benefiting or that it could be fixed.

Since that cold day when we filmed in Anamosa, 3 states have pledged to count incarcerated people at home for districting purposes. The states of New York, Maryland and Delaware will be figuring out where incarcerated people in their states come from, and when the federal census data arrives, those states will be adjusting the data to reflect that home address information.

The residents of Anamosa rejected the idea of giving 1% of the city 25% of the political power and changed their form of government to ensure that everyone would have the same access to government regardless of whether they lived next to a large prison. Hopefully other states and the Census Bureau won't be too far behind.

Gerrymandering will be in theaters nationwide October 15th.