Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Rural counties treat prisoners as political footballs when drawing electoral districts

The Austin Statesman's Jonathon Tilove had a story over the weekend ("Prisoners can't vote but they can subtly effect political power," Nov. 30) on the impact of urban convicts housed in rural prisons on state and local redistricting, a topic this blog has addressed numerous times over the years. The story hones in on the difference between how counties handle prisoners when drawing commissioners court precincts compared to they're counted for state legislative districts. Prisoners can't vote in Texas until they're "off paper" (i.e, when their sentence is finished, including any time on parole), but they're included in Census population counts that inform redistricting decisions.

Bottom line: There are many rural counties that exclude prisoners from their counts because most or all of some precincts (each county is divided into four) would be populated by inmates if they were included in the count. But state lawmakers have balked at changing where inmates are counted to reflect their home counties because, particularly for state rep districts, it artificially boosts representation for GOP-leaning rural districts, inflating their number and diminishing the number of voters making up "blue" districts in urban centers. Unfortunately, it's state lawmakers who decide where inmates should be counted and, with the present Republican majority, that makes this a partisan political hot potato at the capitol.

The issue has been raised most prominently over the years by a group called the Prison Policy Initiative, and it was a new analysis from them that spawned this article. Here's a notable excerpt describing their findings:
“We found that most of the areas that gain additional political clout from prison gerrymandering on the state level reject the prison counts when they draw local districts,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, which he founded as a student at Western New England College School of Law more than a decade ago. “Our research confirms that faced with the absurd prospect of drawing a city or county district that is mostly — or even entirely — incarcerated, local governments are leading the way in rejecting prison gerrymandering.”

At its most absurd, had Garza County, population 6,461, not excluded the 1,995 residents of the Giles W. Dalby Correctional Facility from its redistricting, an entire precinct would have been made up of “criminal aliens” awaiting deportation, with not a voter among them.

The Prison Policy Initiative’s inventory listed 64 Texas cities and counties with what the report calls the greatest “potential distortion” — a measure of how much of a potential district could be populated by prisoners. All but nine have chosen to exclude that population in redistricting.

Yet in drawing state legislative districts there remains a strong rural rooting interest in maintaining the census practice of counting prisoners — just like college students, barracked stateside military personnel, and migrant workers — where they find them to be mostly living and sleeping on Census Day, and then including them in that count when drawing state House, state Senate and U.S. House district lines.

Why? Because those prisoners pad the population of sparsely settled rural districts, sustaining a House or Senate seat with far fewer eligible voters than other districts, undermining the principle of one-man, one-vote, and potentially someday affecting the balance of power in the Legislature because, in Texas, seven of the nine House districts with the largest prison populations are represented by Republicans.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative's website, 40 Texas counties exclude prisoners when drawing local precincts, even though all of them benefit at the statehouse from extra representation because of inmates counted there. They are: Anderson, Bastrop, Bee, Bowie, Brazoria, Brown, Burnet, Cherokee, Childress, Concho, Coryell, Dawson, DeWitt, Dickens, Duval, Fannin, Freestone, Frio, Garza, Hale, Haskell, Houston, Howard, Jack, Jones, Karnes, Kinney, La Salle, Live Oak, Madison, Medina, Mitchell, Pecos, Potter, Reeves, Rusk, Terry, Walker, Wichita, Willacy. Prisoners in those counties are being treated as political footballs - counted when it benefits local pols and discounted whenever it serves their interests. Hard not to view the whole situation as an expression of political cynicism, but then, that's true of the redistricting process in general, isn't it?

The Statesman story notes that Rep. Harold Dutton for years has championed counting Texas prisoners at their last known home addresses for purposes of redistricting, but the partisan aspects of the issue have continually thwarted him. Two states - Maryland and New York - have already changed where they count prisoners. Two more - California and Delaware - will make the switch with the 2020 Census. Grits would like to see Texas rationalize this mess by 2020 as well, but as long as the topic is considered through the lens of state-level partisanship instead of county-level pragmatism, changing it in the near future would be an uphill climb.


Lee said...

Three Fifths compromise?

rodsmith said...

personally I think that if they can't vote while in prison they can't count them. This would also apply if they can't vote AFTER they are released either.

Of course I also think that if they can't vote. They should pay no taxes except income. After all part of the reason we are a separate country from England was "no taxation without representation".

No vote! No rep!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Rod, both the Texas and US Constitutions peg the drawing of districts to US Census counts, so it would require constitutional amendments to change that: Huge hurdle at the state level (2/3 of both chambers and a public vote), impossible at the federal level. As long as the prisoners give extra clout to the party in power, it's a political impossibility that that could change in Texas before, say, the mid 2020s. It will NEVER change for US Congressional districts.

A FAR easier fix would be just to count them were they're from, not where they're held.

rodsmith said...

LOL that is true grits but you have to remember back then sentences used to be very short for everything but murder which usually got you quickly killed. Plus back then state's didn't strip your voting rights.

Anonymous said...

The criminals vote for Obama. Not surprising.