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Exclude prisoners from local redistricting

Letter explaining why counting prison populations as residents of Coxsackie, New York undermines democracy by causing vote dilution.

by Peter Wagner, February 3, 2003

I submitted this letter to the editor of the Daily Freeman in Greene County New York:

Dear Editor,

I agree with John Houghtaling of Athens that it’s not fair for Coxsackie to get two extra legislators because the state owns two prisons there. [Legislature remapping criticized, Daily Freeman, Jan 29, 2003].

While troubling enough in theory, the actual impact is more than twice that reported by the Daily Freeman. According to Census 2000, there are 2,870 prisoners in Coxsackie, not 1,200. Almost a third of the town’s official population is incarcerated in Coxsackie or Greene Correctional Facilities.

No more than a handful of the prisoners are from Coxsackie or Greene County, but those two prisons account for 6% of the county’s reported population. Counted in Coxsackie only as a result of a Census Bureau quirk, it’s unfair to the other portions of Greene County for Coxsackie to pretend to be 48% larger than it really is.

Using census counts of prisoners for redistricting may go beyond being “not fair” to violating the federal and state constitutions. The 14th Amendment principle of one-person-one-vote requires that legislative districts be of equal-sized populations. Including out-of-town prisoners in the count for Coxsackie gives each real Coxsackie resident greater access to county government while diluting the votes of other county residents.

The New York State Constitution is quite explicit that prisoners reside at their pre-incarceration homes and not at the prison: “no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence, by reason of his presence or absence … while confined in any public prison.”

Census quirks aside, the true population of Greene County is 45,325 and Coxsackie contains 6,014 residents. While Coxsackie is really only 13.3% of the county, counting disenfranchised prisoners as Coxsackie residents swells the weight of the town to 18.4% of the county. Allowing Coxsackie to appropriate the state’s prisoners for purposes of representation at the county legislature dilutes the vote of every resident in every other town in the county.

For purposes of redistricting, counting state prisoners as Coxsackie residents is neither logical nor fair.

Peter Wagner
Prison Policy Initiative
February 3, 2003

Peter Wagner is Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

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