The principle of ‘one person, one vote’ is central to our democracy in the United States. In order for our representative democracy to work properly, the system for determining the geographic size of a legislative district must ensure that the population size of each district is equal.
In New York, the system for determining how legislative district lines are drawn is broken. Currently, the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment uses Census population counts for determining the size of legislative districts in New York. The problem is that the Census counts people in prison as residents of the prison – instead of the communities from which they came and are most likely to return.
The vast majority of New York’s prison population come from urban communities – New York City and Upstate cities – and most are from low-income communities and communities of color.
By counting people in prison as residents of rural, white communities, the home communities of incarcerated individuals are losing their due representation.
In fact, this system of prison-based gerrymandering is a violation of the New York State Constitution, which says “For the purpose of voting, no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence, …while confined in any public prison.”
Thirteen upstate counties have already taken the initiative to ignore the Census data with regard to prison populations for the purposes of drawing their own county legislative district lines. Essex County said “Persons incarcerated in state and federal correctional institutions live in a separate environment, do not participate in the life of Essex County and do not affect the social and economic character of the towns… The inclusion of these federal and state correctional facility inmates unfairly dilutes the votes or voting weight of persons residing in other towns within Essex County…”
That’s why the Public Policy and Education Fund of New York has joined the campaign to End Prison-Based Gerrymandering. Our role will consist of educating New Yorkers about the problem of prison-based gerrymandering and address misinformation about voting rights.