Only two people voted for Danny Young in the 2005 Anamosa City Council race. It was enough to win.
Mr. Young beat out Marty Seeley in the Iowa race that became famous not for its low voter turnout but for the practice of prison gerrymandering. Mr. Young’s district was made up of 58 registered voters and 1,300 nonvoting prisoners at the Anamosa State Penitentiary.
Other Anamosa council members represented about 1,400 constituents.
In recent years, state politicians have used prisoners in the penitentiary system to win and hold seats in state and local government, says Princeton University researcher Jason Kelly in a newly released study “The Strategic Use of Prisons in Partisan Gerrymandering” published in the Legislative Studies Quarterly Feb. 1.
He points to the Anamosa race as one of the most flagrant examples, but it isn’t the only one.
The study looked at 46 state Senate districts from the 1990 and 2000 censuses for evidence of prisoner movement to gain political leverage. Mr. Kelly found “overwhelming evidence that remappers also take nonvoting blocs into account when attempting to achieve a partisan electoral advantage.”
Findings pointed to Texas, Colorado and Virginia as the top states to use prison gerrymandering in the 2000 redistricting.
“By shifting a significant proportion of these phantom constituents into districts that lean heavily toward the majority party,” read the article, “legislators can free up an equal number of citizens from those districts to be distributed among neighboring marginal ones, thereby increasing that party’s likelihood of picking up additional seats in the state legislature.”
Prison-based gerrymandering has become an issue as the number — roughly 2 million — of prisoners nationwide continue to rise. The numbers are too low to affect federal elections, but the report contends it does have a noticeable effect at the state and local level.
Executive Director for the Prison Policy Initiative Peter Wagner wants to stop prison-based gerrymandering by having the U.S. Census Bureau count prisoners at their home addresses, not at the prison.
“As a nonpartisan scientific organization, the Census Bureau is not involved in redistricting,” said Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves in a blog entry.
The census counts people living in prisons as living at the institution.
To combat this problem, the Census Bureau releases the counts for group quarters (nonhousehold living) earlier so that districts could use the data in their redistricting formulas.
“It’s such a geeky point, but it’s such a huge deal,” Mr. Wagner said.
In the past, Mr. Wagner said, group quarters data would be released after or well into the process of redistricting. However, states also have stepped into the gerrymandering issue by mandating prisoners be counted at their residence, not prison. California, Delaware, New York and Maryland all have passed measures like this.
Another solution, Mr. Wagner said, would be for county and local governments to take matters into their own hands while redistricting.
This is what a recent bill in the Virginia attempts to do. Mr. Wagner said Virginia is one of the few states that requires its local governments to use census data when redistricting.
Republican Delegate Riley E. Ingram of the Virginia House of Delegates sponsored HB13, which passed the Virginia House unanimously earlier this month. He said that the current law allows local government to exclude prison populations in state prisons while redistricting. His law would add the options of excluding federal and county prisons as well.
Mr. Ingram pushed the bill because of Prince George County — a county in his district — is home to three prisons.
“So many times persons are from other localities,” said Mr. Ingram, saying that prisoners doing time in the regional jail come from surrounding counties.
“It’s a fairness issue, equal representation at local levels,” he said.
Princeton’s Mr. Kelly said he hasn’t researched the other types of gerrymandering issues because of the massive amount of data it would require. He thinks that politicians could use schools, hospitals and military bases in the same way.
“I wouldn’t be surprised with this happening with other phantom populations,” he said.