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Prisons and City Elections

iowa public radio logo Iowa Public Radio, November 3, 2009. Listen: mp3
Transcript by the Prison Policy Initiative.

Reporter Joyce Russell:
Fifty-four year old Danny Young is a backhoe operator for Jones County. He got elected to City Council four years ago even though he never meant to run.
Danny Young:
I was elected with write-ins and there was just nobody running from this area, so… and there was only two write-ins for me.
Joyce Russell:
Getting elected that way isn’t that unusual for small-town Iowa where it’s sometimes hard to recruit candidates for city office.

But in Anamosa’s Ward 2 it was extra hard. There were hardly any people, only about 140 who weren’t inmates at the state prison. So starting today, Anamosa abandons the ward system.

Instead, every city council member will be elected at large to represent the entire town. That’s drawing praise from good government advocates across the country.

Anamosa city administrator, Patrick Callahan, says since convicted felons in the prison can’t vote, under the old system, at least on paper, the residents of Ward 2 got better representation than everybody else.
Patrick Callahan:
You only have a small pool of 140 people who have a vote on the city council. Whereas the rest of the wards, it’s over 1,400 people for one vote on the city council. So you do not have the ‘one man, one vote’ principle that you normally strive to achieve.
Joyce Russell:
That ‘one man one vote’ principle is important for the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative. Director Peter Wagner says they’ve been keeping an eye on Anamosa.
Peter Wagner:
Anamosa is one of the most important examples of prison-based gerrymandering in the country because it had a district that was almost entirely prisoners.
Joyce Russell:
Or by his math, 95% of the residents of Ward 2 are prisoners, the highest such percentage in the nation. Wagner says a similar disparity exists in Clarinda, Iowa. He says in the ward where the state prison is located, almost 60% of constituents are in jail.

A receptionist at Clarinda City Hall says there have been some discussions of the issue there, but in her words, “It hasn’t been a problem.”

Wagner explains that while the Census Bureau counts prisoners where they’re jailed, cities, counties, and states have the authority to count them instead where they lived before they were convicted. He says dozens of local jurisdictions around the country have made that change, and several states have legislation pending to do the same for legislative districts. If that ever happened in Iowa, State Senate Gene Fraise would feel the heat.

His district, 46, in southeast Iowa includes two state prisons, at Mt. Pleasant and Ft. Madison, so more than 2000 of his 53,000 constituents are inmates, or roughly 4%. That’s just fine with him.
Gene Fraise:
Yeah, I like it the way it is. [laughs] I like those numbers, and it keeps my district smaller.
Joyce Russell:
Meaning that if those inmates were no longer counted in his district, the geographical size of the district would have to grow to pick up more residents to keep the number of his constituents roughly equal to that of other senate districts.

Reformers admit that the change would mean less representation for rural areas where most prisons are built. Senator Fraise says he’s not aware of any discussions among majority Democrats to change the system.

Meanwhile back in Anamosa, Danny Young says he won’t be running for re-election for one of the at-large seats. After all, he says, remember, he … didn’t choose the job 4 years ago but got elected with write-ins. He says that could happen again, though.
Danny Young:
I still have people saying they are going to vote me in. So I guess I haven’t totally ruled it out.
Joyce Russell:
And he says if he’s elected at large it won’t be that much different than being a ward councilman. He says in such a small town he always felt he was representing the whole town anyway.

I’m Joyce Russell, Iowa Public Radio News.
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