Home Is Where the Vote Is: Prison Gerrymandering Denies Urban Communities Fair Representation

An accurate population count is critical to upholding individual rights and the efficient function of the United States government. It is an essential tool that determines the equitable distribution of services and ensures true democratic representation.

The founding fathers understood the count’s usefulness when they included language requiring a census in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution. Unfortunately, the Constitution did not treat all races equally. A compromise—the three-fifths compromise—was struck to appease northern states that did not want enslaved Africans counted and southern states that wanted enslaved people counted to provide the South with a greater number of representatives in Congress. It was decided that every five enslaved Africans would be counted as three people.

The abolishment of slavery in 1865 made the three-fifths compromise obsolete, but race remains a thorny issue for the American census.

Over the years, the survey has gradually changed, modernizing the questions and terminology related to race. For example, in 2000, the census finally allowed individuals to identify as two or more races. This, and other changes, have helped provide a clearer picture of communities around the country and better data to draw on to address the specific needs of communities of color.

Census data is not only used to draw lines designating voting districts. The federal government and states use these numbers to evaluate and distribute appropriate funding to communities around the country. Any method of collection that does not accurately count—or undercounts communities—risks overlooking underserved regions that qualify for federal grant funding.

As our neighborhoods continue to diversify, leaders wishing to uphold the Constitution, including allies of communities of color, must examine the effectiveness of current data collection. All parties must join together to advocate for additional updates to promote fair access to the democratic process.

As the past chair of the congressional subcommittee that oversaw the 2010 census, I know the importance of protecting the integrity of the census and data collection process. Despite the positive changes we have made throughout history, there is a persistent trend of bad actors playing politics with the survey in order to disenfranchise racial minorities. We see a present-day example of this type of bad faith provision in the 2018 announcement that the Department of Commerce planned to add a citizenship question to the census. There was no valid reason for this proposal other than a concerted effort to suppress the response rate of minorities and new immigrants.

The effort to continue to disenfranchise racial and ethnic minorities is also evident in the irrational prison gerrymandering rule. This unfair rule currently allows prisoners to be counted as residents of the address where their correctional institutions are located even though most prisoners will return to the communities in which they lived prior to their arrests.

As a result of high rate of incarceration for minorities, the prison gerrymandering rule unequivocally discriminates against communities of color. According to the Department of Justice, roughly two million people are incarcerated in jails or prisons nationwide. People of color are disproportionately represented in that figure. Black people make up nearly 40 percent of prisoners while comprising only 13 percent of the population of the United States.

The impact of this unreasonable rule is significant. It takes away the right of individual prisoners to be accurately counted, and it directly disadvantages members of the communities from which they came—and to which they will likely return. As a result, votes in areas with high numbers of racial minorities are weakened and critical projects in these areas are underfunded.

The fact that prisoners are counted as residents of communities that have never been their homes is especially worrisome when one considers the drastic increase in the construction of these institutions in sparsely populated areas. In the past 40 years, 60 percent of new correctional facilities were constructed in non-metro regions. According to available data, residents in these typically rural areas are predominantly white whereas urban areas tend to be more racially diverse. Although rural communities may be in need of economic investments, the political resistance to making common sense changes to the prison gerrymandering rule suggests there may be ulterior motives at play.

One motive may be a concern that any change to population counts may negatively impact economic development projects centered around these correctional institutions. Residents of urban communities may also be concerned over the logistics of building prisons in urban areas. However, I am most concerned that officials are motivated by a desire to inflate the population count in rural areas for the purpose of suppressing the voting strength of racially diverse urban districts.

There is a simple solution to address this problem.

In Congress, I introduced the Correct the Census Count Act, requiring the Department of Commerce to reverse the prison gerrymandering rule. If this bill becomes law, incarcerated individuals would be counted as residents of where they lived before incarceration. This would significantly improve the accuracy of the data collected. And as a result, these communities would be better equipped to plan for and address the needs of their residents. Most importantly, this bill would lead to more accurate representation in the halls of Congress and beyond.

Passing the Correct the Census Count Act is essential to upholding the intent of the framers of the Constitution. The United States has reached a point in history when leaders must take decisive action to stand by our founding principles. When referring to the census, one such principle is paramount: all men and women are equal under the law. We must continue to make progress toward inclusivity if we wish to be a true representative democracy. Reversing the prison gerrymandering rule by passing the Correct the Census Count Act is one small step in the right direction.