by Emily Bazelon and Peter Wagner, September 8, 2004
With planning for the 2010 census already under way, a question is in play
that will affect future elections: where to count the nation’s exploding
Since the first census in 1790, prisoners have been counted where they’re
locked up, not where they previously lived. But now that there are close to
1.5 million prisoners nationwide, the traditional counting method takes
voting power away from liberal urban areas like New York City, where most
prisoners come from, and gives it to conservative rural communities, where
most prisons are.
It’s time the U.S. Census Bureau gave states the data they need to reverse
Prisoners are barred from voting in New York and 47 other states. But they
count for purposes of drawing lines for legislative districts. Locating the
prisoners in their upstate cells for districting takes their lack of
representation a step further, by reducing the political power of the
communities from which they come.
Take the New York State Senate. In all, 76 percent of the state’s nearly
71,500 prisoners come from New York City and its suburbs. But more than 90
percent of the inmates are held and counted upstate.
In that region are seven New York Senate districts with smaller-than-average
populations, thanks to gerrymandering. Each of the seven districts has a
Republican senator. And each has thousands of prisoners – including almost
9,000 in the district that includes Attica state prison.
In theory, the Attica prisoners are represented by Sen. Dale Volker
(R-Depew). Yet the former police officer says that he ignores letters from
inmates in order to spend his time on the corrections workers he sees as his
real constituents. As co-chair of the committee that is reexamining the
Rockefeller drug laws, Volker has led the opposition to reducing sentences
for the majority of offenders, stonewalling this year’s reform effort.
Taking the prisoners out of the upstate population count would reduce the
number of legislators like Volker with an incentive to court the corrections
Gerrymandering is an art in New York and many other states. But if rural
districts didn’t have prisoners to inflate their population numbers, some
legislative lines would likely have to be redrawn, since the seven
undersized upstate districts already barely include enough voters to squeak
by the constitutional rule of thumb for apportionment. New lines could shift
one Senate seat from upstate to the New York City area – a move the
legislature sidestepped during the last round of redistricting two years
The same questions about fair allocation of political power apply throughout
the country. Many states send tens of thousands of inmates from their urban
homes to rural prisons. With federal prisons expanding twice as fast as
state prisons and unevenly distributed throughout the country, it’s
increasingly possible that the current method of counting prisoners could
affect how congressional seats are apportioned among the states in 2010.
The traditional method for counting prisoners isn’t the only reason that
urban communities are underrepresented in government: Low voter turnout, the
undercounting of racial minorities and felon disenfranchisement are also to
blame. But the prisoner count is especially unsavory because it’s
reminiscent of the practice of counting slaves as three-fifths of a person
that predates the Civil War. The three-fifths count helped keep black people
enslaved by increasing the size of the South’s congressional delegations.
Today, half of the nation’s prisoners who are ill-served by the current
census practice are African-American.
The Census Bureau’s general rule is to count people where they live and
sleep most of the time. By adding one line – asking prisoners for their last
previous address – the bureau could also present numbers about the
neighborhoods they came from. That’s where the parole department expects the
prisoners to go on release. And it’s also where most state constitutions,
including New York’s, say that a prisoner’s legal residence is.
The bureau can’t provide the new data in time to affect the elections this
November. But as the prison population continues to grow, changing the
census will matter even more to the outcome of future races.
Copyright (c) 2004, Newsday, Inc.
Emily Bazelon is a senior editor at Legal Affairs magazine. Peter Wagner is
assistant director of the Prison Policy Initiative. They are Soros Justice