Locking Away Democracy: Prison-based Gerrymandering And The Distortion of Districts

Daniel Fishel for NBC News

New research suggests that the war on crime in the United States has led to an increase in partisan gerrymandering. A study from Swarthmore College student Lindsey Holcomb found that as the prison population has risen over the past couple of decades, there has also been a decrease in political representation. By utilizing Census data, Holcomb shows how congressional districts are drawn to concentrate prisoners into congressional districts while leaving a smaller population of eligible voters. Holcomb states that prisoners are ineligible to vote and so prisoners are unable to express their concerns on critical political issues. Incarcerated persons are counted according to the US Census usual residence rule. The usual residence rule, according to Holcomb, states that a person should be counted for the decennial census according to where a person lives and sleeps a majority of the time. This rule has established the practice of counting incarcerated people according to their place of imprisonment on Census Day.

As Holcomb points out: “Up until the 1970s, the incarcerated population in the United States was between 100,000 and 200,000 individuals, or barely more than “a blip” in the redistricting data (Wagner 2012, 1243). Since then, however, the major demographic changes caused by mass incarceration have transformed the seemingly innocuous “usual residence rule” into a mechanism by which the distribution of political voice is dangerously distorted.”

Gerrymandering is the dividing of a state or county into congressional districts to benefit the political party in power. Gerrymandering ensures one political party a majority in as many districts as possible where they’ll be virtually guaranteed to win that election. At the same time, the party in power draws other districts to concentrate the voting strength of the opposing party into as few districts as possible.

Holcomb notes that the apportionment of congressional districts must be drawn to be equivalent in total populations. Total populations are counted to include ineligible voters, including people that are incarcerated. According to Holcomb, this leads to a distortion of political power to the voters who are eligible to vote.

Holcomb’s research draws connections between the war on crime and the increase in partisan gerrymandering. Holcomb suggests that revisions to the US Census usual residence rule are needed to apportion congressional districts fairly. Holcomb goes further states that only when the war on crime ends can the impact of prisoners on politics be alleviated.

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