The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling Monday that allows Maryland to count prison inmates at their last known addresses - rather than their prison addresses - for redistricting purposes, and upholds the map approved by the General Assembly last year.
Activists had sued the state, saying that the newly drawn congressional districting map violated the U.S. Constitution. The map was developed by a committee appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley and based on census data and statewide input. It was also drawn to reflect a 2010 Maryland law that counts prisoners at their last known addresses, which differs from the U.S. Census Bureau’s policy of counting inmates at their prison addresses, used by most states.
Critics of the federal policy say it has artificially inflated the populations and voting power of the often-rural districts that contain prisons, while reducing the influence of urban areas where many inmates formerly lived.
“These prisoners do not use the roads or the resources in that [prison’s] district,” said Delegate Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk, Prince George’s Democrat. “They end up being released and going back to the communities where they lived prior to being incarcerated.”
The Supreme Court issued its decision based on briefs in the District Court case and did not hear oral arguments.
“We’re disappointed in the terms of the decision,” said Radamase Cabrera, spokesman for the Fannie Lou Hamer Political Action Committee, a black voting rights group that helped back the lawsuit. The lawsuit also claimed the maps were drawn to illegally dilute minority influence.
“But we will continue doing what we need to do about getting the referendum on the ballot,” Mr. Cabrera said.
Opponents of the congressional map are trying to <$>petition it to referendum and have until Saturday to turn in 55,736 valid voter signatures to the state.
Organizers, some of whom argue the map disenfranchises black voters as well as Republicans, turned in 26,763 of those signatures last month.
Maryland is one of just four states that counts prisoners at their former home addresses for congressional and legislative redistricting purposes, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The others are California, Delaware and New York.
The legislation instituting the change was sponsored by Ms. Pena-Melnyk and Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, Baltimore Democrat.
Supporters argued that most prisoners have no connection to their prison communities and return within a matter of months or years to live and vote in their former hometowns.
The new policy is expected to most prominently protect representation in Baltimore, which has steadily lost residents and legislative seats over the years. The city could now see a slower rate of loss.
The ruling could be bad news for remote areas of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore that have benefited in redistricting from the numbers provided by inmates.
“It is obvious that the majority of those inmates do come back to their communities,” Ms. Pugh said. “To be counted in districts [where] they don’t live is unfair representation.”
The new method passed in 2010 along largely partisan lines with support from Democrats and opposition from Republicans, who argued it was designed to move political influence out of rural, traditionally conservative areas into more Democratic urban centers.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit also questioned the state’s authority to augment federal census counts and argued that the new law could cause the state to ignore inmates who are homeless or don’t have a documented previous address in the state.
“Once you give states the right to say who will and will not count, it’s a very dangerous precedent,” Mr. Cabrera said. “To me, that’s giving states too much leeway.”
An official with the Maryland Department of Planning said inmates who were homeless or lacked a previous address were not disregarded in the most recent redistricting but were counted as living at the prison facility.
According to state law, convicted felons are not allowed to vote while in prison but most can have their voting rights reinstated after completing imprisonment, parole and probation.