Tuesday, October 19, 2010

'Where should inmates be counted for redistricting?

In August, the House Research Organization published a pro and con style article by Tom Howe titled "Where should inmates be counted for redistricting?" (pdf), from which I thought I'd excerpt a few choice tidbits:
The Maryland, Delaware, and New York legislatures recently approved laws that, for redistricting purposes, will count inmates at their most recent permanent home addresses before they were incarcerated, rather than at the institution where they are housed. Maryland’s law, the first to be enacted, will assign inmates to their previous addresses for both U.S. congressional and state legislative redistricting. The Delaware and New York laws will apply only to state legislative redistricting. Counting inmates at their addresses prior to incarceration differs from the U.S. Census Bureau’s practice of counting inmates as residents of the communities where they are incarcerated.

While Texas and most other states use the Census Bureau’s approach for redistricting, counting inmates where they are incarcerated, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin recently have considered or are considering measures similar to the ones adopted by Maryland, Delaware, and New York. ...

Some Texas counties exclude inmates when establishing county commissioner precincts. Anderson, Bee, Brazos, Coryell, Childress, Concho, Dawson, Grimes, Karnes, Madison, Mitchell, Pecos, Walker, and Wood counties all have excluded inmate populations when establishing county commissioner, justice of the peace, and constable precincts, according to studies in March and June by Prisoners of the Census. In Anderson and Concho counties, excluding inmate populations prevented the creation of precincts that would have consisted entirely of inmates.

When drawing new boundaries, these counties exclude the populations of felony-level prisons, as well as institutions that house illegal immigrants awaiting deportation hearings. Counties that engage in this practice say it helps protect the one-person, one-vote principle because incarcerated felons and illegal immigrants cannot vote. These counties include population from juvenile detention facilities, which house people up to age 21, because some still may be eligible to vote. This practice affects the drawing of boundaries for the election of other county level offices, such as justices of the peace and constables, as well as designating election precincts. ...

In two current Texas House districts, inmates make up 12 percent of the population. If the inmate population were removed from these districts’ population counts, they would have to expand geographically to be within the allowable equal population requirements.
There aren't really any grants or other government appropriations tied to these population figures, so the main issue is redistricting. Nationally, there are 21 counties with more than 21% of their population made up of inmates, reports Prisoners of the Census; Texas has ten of them. Further, says PoC, as a result of growing incarceration totals, "A total of ten counties in Texas were reported in Census 2000 as growing during the previous decade when they actually shrank." The next census won't show the same level of growth, but there's little doubt prisons are artificially propping up many rural counties' population figures.

I don't expect Texas will follow Maryland, Delaware and New York's lead next year during redistricting, with one caveat: A case in which the US Supreme Court earlier this year requested briefs could dramatically alter the debate over where to count prisoners if the court decides that racial disparities from mass incarceration disproportionately deprive minorities of the vote. If that unlikely ruling came down (the Obama Administration recommended the court refuse to hear the case) and prisoners all of a sudden were empowered to vote, as they presently can only in Maine and Vermont, I'm guessing Texas would act rapidly to change the law so they voted in the district where they lived before they were imprisoned. They'd almost have to, if only to make prisoner voting power less concentrated and to keep Anderson and Walker Counties - DA, Sheriff, and all - from falling completely in thrall to prisoners' votes. (UPDATE: SCOTUS declined to hear the case.)

In that light, perhaps the best answer to "Where should inmates be counted for redistricting?" is "It depends on whether you let them vote or not." Or in other words, as in all redistricting debates, whose ox is being gored?

See related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

they can't vote in texas (felons) so why does it matter where they live?

Eric Vincent said...

There are people starving in the world and we're worried about what? Shameful.

rodsmith said...

well i think if they can't vote! they DON'T COUNT! you can't have it both ways. either they are a part of this society and can vote...or they are not and therefore should not be considered in the count of it!

sunray's wench said...

It's not just about voting, it's about artificially inflating the size of a community which then leads to public spending based on inaccurate figures. Public spending = your taxes. More of your money gets spent on small rural areas where hardly anyone else lives that is not connected in some way to TDCJ (Anderson county is the best example, particularly the 3 horse settlement of Tennessee Colony), instead of in the more populated areas where the money is usually more needed and better spent.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Not just public spending, Sunray, but even more so representation. If 10% of a rural district is prisoners, 90 voters in that district have the same voting power as 100 in a district with no prison. In practice this props up rural districts that otherwise would be ceding political clout to the cities.

As a practical matter, as mentioned in the post, there aren't any grants divvied up by population at the county level that are effected. The issue is redistricting.

Anonymous said...

Actually a felon can vote in Texas.. Do your homework people!
"In Texas, a convicted felon regains the right to vote after completing his or her sentence. Therefore, once you have completed the punishment phase (including any term of incarceration, parole, or supervision, or completed a period of probation ordered by the court), you would be eligible to register and vote in the state of Texas."

Let me guess we are going to start counting them as 2/3 of a person too?? I mean really people, it is 2010.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:04,

Unborn children will get to vote in 18+ years so let's count them too!
What about illegals? They may get papers one day and also be elible.

I mean who cares about exercising common sense.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:04, felons can't vote until they're completely "off paper." This discussion revolves around couning people still in prison, which means we're not talking about what happens to folks "after completing [their] sentence."