Prisoners Still to be Counted as State Residents

Prison based Gerrymandering.

Prison-Based Gerrymandering.

Census Bureau Proposed Prisoner Residence Rules Inflate Power of Some States

by Aleks Kajstura

The U.S. Census Bureau released its proposed 2020 Census ‘residence rules’ that ignore overwhelming public input supporting a change in how incarcerated persons are counted in the Census. The Bureau announced it is leaving in place the inaccurate and outdated practice of counting incarcerated persons as “residents” of the prison location instead of their home communities. Interested stakeholders have until September 1 to submit comments before this proposal becomes final. [Read more…]

Fair Districts PA Coalition Making Our Vote Count

The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, the League of Women Voters and other organizations across the state announced the formation of a new coalition called Fair Districts PA. The coalition’s purpose is to advocate for reform of Pennsylvania’s redistricting rules to make the process of drawing electoral districts impartial, transparent, and accountable.

Pennsylvania's current redistricting plan is on the left. A hypothetical plan with compact districts is above on the right.

Pennsylvania’s current redistricting plan is on the left. A hypothetical plan with compact districts is above on the right.

Congressional and state legislative electoral maps are redrawn every ten years following the national census. In Pennsylvania, the process of drawing those maps is controlled almost entirely by state legislators, a conflict of interest that puts politicians in charge and takes away the rights of voters.

Some states, most notably Arizona and California, have reformed the process by establishing impartial citizen commissions and clear standards for how districts are to be drawn. The results have shown increased voter engagement and more competitive elections.

Fair District PA’s priorities include:

  • Assigning the redistricting power to an independent commission, of which neither the commissioners, nor members of their immediate families, may be government or political party officials.
  • Ensuring the transparency of the process and meaningful opportunities for public participation.
  • Establishing verifiable statistical standards for a fair election process.

[Read more…]

Allow Pennsylvanians to Vote and Count Their Votes

PA-07_zpsd6ab2432— by Ben Turner

State Reps. Brian Sims (Philadelphia), Scott Conklin (Centre) and Tina Davis (Bucks) are introducing a package of three bills to help Pennsylvanian voters:

  • Making it easier to vote: Sims introduced House Bill 1506 which would allow in-person absentee ballot voting before primary and general elections and no-excuse-needed absentee ballot voting by mail. It has been referred to the House State Government Committee.
  • Redistricting reform: Davis and Sims will introduce House Bill 1637 to create an Independent Redistricting Commission, similar to the one recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ended partisan gerrymandering in Arizona.
  • Automatic voter registration: Conklin and Sims have introduced a bill (H.B. 1306) to set up automatic voter registration of all eligible people who obtain a Pennsylvania driver’s license or non-driver identification card, with provisions for opting out within 21 days. Similar legislation has already expanded voter rolls in Oregon and California.

[Read more…]

Bipartisan Group Tackles Redistricting Reform in Harrisburg

— Charles M. Tocci

Calling it an “imperative” first step to any government reform initiative, a bipartisan, bicameral group of Pennsylvania lawmakers today announced the formation of a legislative workgroup aimed at hammering out redistricting reform legislation.

“Modern day government has deteriorated into a politically tainted, polarized and gridlocked force that is more about self-preservation than representative government,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton). “This bipartisan effort is not about whether we need to change redistricting, but how we should change it.”

The number of interactions between cross-party pairs has decreased drastically from 1949 to 2011. (Image: Clio Andris)

The number of interactions between cross-party pairs has decreased drastically from 1949 to 2011. (Image: Clio Andris)

The lawmakers claim that Pennsylvania’s many oddly shaped, gerrymandered districts have created politically impenetrable fiefdoms that pressure lawmakers to toe the party line at the expense of bipartisanship and compromise. A recent Penn State study concluded that members of Congress are now nearly seven times less likely to cross-vote on issues than they were a few decades ago. In the 112th Congress (2011-2013), just 7 of the 444 members accounted for 98.3% of all cross-votes.

Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) noted, “We’ve heard our constituents’ ask for a more accountable government and a more open and transparent redistricting process in Pennsylvania. I hope the formation of this bipartisan redistricting reform group shows that we are listening to those concerns, and we’re ready and willing to work together to overcome current challenges. This is a significant first step toward a bipartisan solution that works for all of Pennsylvania.

Rep. Mike Carroll (D-Luzerne) said, “There are some good proposals on the table. This workgroup’s job is to find common ground, draw the best from various ideas, and emerge with a strong bipartisan solution that we can all rally around.”

Sen. John Eichelberger (R-Blair) added, “I believe that the difficulties and delays that plagued Pennsylvania’s last attempt to put together a timely map of legislative districts emphasizes the need to explore new methods of reapportionment in the Commonwealth. For that reason, I am happy to participate in the efforts of this workgroup.”

The lawmakers said it is important that the redistricting reform process take shape this legislative session to have a new system in place when district maps are redrawn again for the 2020 census. To change the redistricting process, the state legislature must pass legislation changing the state’s constitution in two consecutive sessions. Voters must then approve the reform proposal via referendum.

“Our democratic system requires that voters choose their legislators, but our politically motivated redistricting process allows legislators to choose voters instead,” said state Sen. Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin/Perry). “That must change.”

Lawmakers claim that the last Legislative Reapportionment Commission largely ignored sound redistricting tenants such as contiguity, compactness and community of interest. New legislative maps, which were supposed to be in place for the 2012 elections, were overturned by the state Supreme Court as being “contrary to law.” The decision sent the commission’s lawmakers, lawyers and staffers back to the drawing board and kept old legislative boundaries in place for the 2012 election.

Members of the group pointed out that the method we use for congressional redistricting in Pennsylvania isn’t any better. The 11th Congressional district runs from Adams County to the northern tier, while the 15th Congressional district goes from Easton to Harrisburg, and the 12th Congressional District traverses from Cambria County to the Ohio line.

The legislators said that drawing Congressional districts is more politically charged than drawing the state House and Senate districts because Congressional districts are presented in bill form and goes through the legislative process. A bipartisan reapportionment commission comprised of caucus leaders meets and deliberates on state House and Senate districts before presenting its state legislative redistricting proposal.

Non-partisan map would give Pennsylvania less biased representation in Congress.

Non-partisan map would give Pennsylvania less biased representation in Congress.

(Editor: Stephen Wolf has computed non-partisan maps “that give voters a real choice and allow the majority to have its voice heard.” Here are his maps for Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Wisconsin and other states.
Even more representative maps can be drawn by actively seeking proportional representation and competitive districts instead of ignoring partisanship as Stephen Wolf does.)

Other lawmakers at the news conference included Senator John Blake (D-Lackawanna), along with Representatives Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks), Dave Parker (R-Monroe) and Steve Also on hand to express their organization’s support for redistricting reform were: Barry Kauffman, Common Cause; Susan Carty, League of Women Voters and Desiree Hung, AARP.

The Death of Democracy in the US

— article by State Senator Daylin Leach, reprinted from the Philadelphia Jewish Voice , 2006.

Voters no longer choose their politicians; instead, politicians choose their voters when they draw the district lines. I have been leading the fight to take the politics out of redistricting.

Redistricting has become a tool used by legislative leaders to ensure that elections are never competitive. As you know, the constitution requires that political boundaries are redrawn every 10 years to reflect population shifts. In recent years, politicians of both parties have become increasingly blatant about drawing these lines to ensure that there are as few genuinely competitive districts as possible. As a result, 95 percent of us live in districts where our vote essentially does not count because those who drew the lines have already decided which party will win.

More after the jump.


Current Pa. congressional districts by party.

Though gerrymandering has been a growing problem for centuries, new technology has made it increasingly effective. Let me explain how this works. Say there are two adjacent legislative districts, both of which typically divide their vote evenly between the Democratic and Republican parties. When the next redistricting comes around, the party leadership of both parties will make a deal to swap precincts so that instead of two 50-50 districts, the new map will have one district that is 70-30 Republican and the other that is 70-30 Democratic. People still walk to the polls on election day, but everyone knows who will win before the first vote is counted.

Iowa has actually passed similar reform. As a result, four out of five of Iowa’s congressional districts are competitive. That is more competitive districts than there are in Pennsylvania, New York and California combined. That state’s legislative races are similarly competitive.

The powers that be in both parties oppose this bill because it takes power out of their hands. The only way that reform will ever happen is if there is a public outcry demanding it.

Prison Gerrymandering: Putting the Con in Constituent


Click to watch: US Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson testifies before  the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Fred Grimm of the Miami Herald wrote an article titled Putting the Con in Constituent, discussing prison gerrymandering:

There’s nothing a state rep loves more than a captive audience. Except for a captive constituency.

North Florida pols have packed their state House districts with a particularly low-maintenance category of citizens. The kind who don’t show up at townhall meetings clamoring about too much traffic or lousy parks or crumbling bridges or under-funded schools or the need for more cops on the beat. They never, ever complain about too few cops.

Best of all they don’t go around town grumbling that folks should vote for that other candidate. They can’t. They can’t vote. They’re state prisoners.

Read the full article here.

Over 200 Organizations Demand Solutions to Prison Gerrymandering‏


Today, more than 200 civil rights, voting rights and criminal justice organizations, including the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, sent a letter calling on the U.S. Census Bureau to seize a timely opportunity to research alternative ways to count incarcerated people in the decennial Census.

The letter expresses a national concern that the Bureau’s method of counting incarcerated people at prison locations, rather than in their home communities, leads to an unequal distribution of political power in state and local governments known as “prison gerrymandering.” The letter explains that incarcerated people are not considered residents of prisons for other purposes, but the Census Bureau’s method “concentrates a population that is disproportionately male, urban, and African-American or Latino in approximately 1,500 federal and state prisons that are far from their home communities.” The 210 organizations wrote:

We are concerned that the Census Bureau’s tabulation procedures distort the redistricting process, giving extra political influence to people who live near prisons while diluting the votes of residents in every other legislative district.

More after the jump.
Although the 2020 Census is seven years away, the Census Bureau is already deep in the planning process. The letter calls on the Bureau to pave the way for a national end to prison gerrymandering in 2020 by prioritizing research on how to count incarcerated people at home in the next census. “In order to develop the best possible methodology for fixing prison gerrymandering, the Census Bureau needs to address this research question now,” said Brenda Wright, Vice President of Legal Strategies at Dēmos.

The letter charges:

Failing to count incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes undermines the constitutional guarantee of ‘one person, one vote’, with critical implications for the health of our democracy.

For that reason, the organizations note, four states and more than 200 counties and municipalities have made their own adjustments to Census Bureau data in order to avoid prison gerrymandering. But while state and local governments are increasingly devising their own solutions, many face unique constraints and only the Census Bureau can implement a comprehensive and standardized national solution.

The letter credits the Census Bureau with recognizing that prison gerrymandering causes significant problems for state and local redistricting. Specifically, the Bureau began to address the problem by releasing 2010 Census data on prison populations ahead of schedule in order to allow state and local governments to adjust their redistricting data to avoid prison gerrymandering. Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said:

The Bureau has made great progress towards enabling state and local governments to find creative solutions to prison gerrymandering, and now the Bureau must use the current planning period to ensure that the 2010 Census is the last one to tabulate two million incarcerated people outside their home communities.

The full text of the letter, including a list of signers, is available here.

The Harm of Prison Gerrymandering


— by Drew Kukorowski

Here at Prison Policy Initiative we’re always trying to think of better ways to explain the problem of prison gerrymandering to folks who may not have heard about it before. Prison gerrymandering is the practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the prisons that detain them, and then using those numbers when election districts are redrawn in order to comply with the Supreme Court’s one person-one vote requirement.

When I first heard about this “miscount,” I wasn’t sure exactly who was harmed by it. Normally, we think that living next door to a prison is undesirable; in this situation, though, living next door to the prison is highly beneficial. That’s because the votes of people who live next door to a prison carry more weight than the votes of people who live in non-prison districts. I’m from North Carolina, and there’s a great example of this problem back home that helped me understand the harm caused by prison gerrymandering.

More after the jump.
There’s only one federal prison in North Carolina. But it’s a big one – FCI Butner just north of Durham in Granville County. In 2010, the Census counted about 4,500 people as residents of the Butner prison complex. But none of those incarcerated people can vote, and the vast majority don’t come from North Carolina, much less from Granville County (e.g., Bernie Madoff). Nonetheless, the Census counts them as residents of Granville County, and the county used those numbers to balance their county commissioner and school board districts during the last round of redistricting.

In the example I found, the people who live near the federal prison in Granville County get twice as much political influence as people who don’t. The Granville County commissioner and school board district – District 3 – with the big federal prison complex is about 50% incarcerated (52.5% to be exact). This is a huge benefit to the actual residents of District 3, but harms the residents of every other district in the county. That’s because the commissioner and school board member from the prison district only have to serve about 4,000 actual constituents. In all the other districts in the county, though, the commissioners and school board members each serve about 8,500 constituents. This means that you have less access to your elected representatives if you don’t live in the prison district. Or to put it another way, every 47 residents of the prison district have as much political power as 100 residents in other districts.

Smaller but still important is the effect of prison gerrymandering on state representative and senatorial districts. Newly drawn NC House District 2 is about 6.7% incarcerated if you take into account the federal and state prisons in Butner (there’s a state prison across the street from the federal prison that has about 1,000 inmates). And the new NC Senate District 20 is about 3% incarcerated. Again, the residents of those districts have more access to their state representatives because those representatives don’t have as many real constituents to serve as the representatives from districts without prisons.

While Granville County didn’t address its prison gerrymandering problem this time around, maybe it will in 2020. After all, there are more than 200 counties and cities around the country with prisons that decided not to use the prison populations when redrawing their district lines. To be fair, Granville County is required to submit its redistricting changes to the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act, and it was concerned that removing its prison population might raise a red flag with the U.S. Department of Justice. But of the 200 counties and cities that avoided prison gerrymandering, about 90 were required to have their plans approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, and all received that approval. Or maybe the North Carolina General Assembly will pass legislation – like Maryland and New York, have – mandating that state and local governments draw election districts based on their real populations. Maybe if Mr. Madoff runs for that school board seat then Granville County will realize that it’s absurd to count prisoners as local residents.