PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city of Cranston on Wednesday over its decision to count state prison inmates on its voter rolls, alleging that it is skewing political influence in Rhode Island’s third-largest city.
According to the lawsuit filed in federal court, a quarter of the 13,000 people counted as residents of Cranston’s 6th Ward are inmates at the Adult Correctional institutions and aren’t eligible to vote. When the 3,400 inmates are subtracted, the 6th Ward’s population is significantly smaller than other wards - even though each ward has a representative on the City Council and the local school board.
“As a result, every three actual residents of that ward have as much say about city and school affairs as four residents in any other ward,” according to the lawsuit. “The voting strength of persons residing in Ward 6 is artificially inflated and the voting strength of persons residing in all other wards is consequently diluted.”
The ACLU - which is joined in the lawsuit by four local residents - wants Cranston officials to redraw its political districts to ensure an equal number of actual residents in each ward.
City Council President John Lanni said the city has long counted residents of the prison and other state facilities when going through redistricting. He said he hasn’t any concerns from the public until he heard about the lawsuit.
“If there’s a problem and they win we’ll have to redistrict,” he said. “It’s the first I’ve heard about it. I’ve never heard a complaint from a single resident.”
Messages seeking comment from Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and 6th Ward Councilman Michael Favicchio were not returned Wednesday.
Many of the inmates serving sentences at the state prison have had their right to vote taken away. Others may still vote, but they are considered to be residents of the communities they lived in before their incarceration.
The nine-member Cranston City Council includes three members elected citywide and six who are elected from geographic wards. The seven-member School Committee includes one at-large member and one member from each ward.
The Cranston City Council approved the city’s current political map in 2012. Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, said his group urged the council to adopt political district lines that ensured each resident had an equal political voice. He said the City Council left the ACLU with no choice but to file the lawsuit.
“The law is very clear: inmates are not considered Cranston residents for purposes of voting,” he said.