There are many ways to hijack political power. One of them is to draw state or city legislative districts around large prisons — and pretend that the inmates are legitimate constituents.
Which, of course, they are not. Prison inmates are stripped of the right to vote in all but two states. They often live hundreds of miles from the prison town — where they may never even see the local streets. Once released, they are hustled onto buses and driven halfway across the state to their actual homes.
Why, then, does the census bureau count inmates as “residents” of their prisons? Force of habit, maybe. But it is way past time to bring the practice to an end.
It made almost no difference when the national prison population was minuscule. But with the prison population at 1.4 million and climbing, this misallocation is having a huge and distorting impact on the political landscape.
By counting inmates at prison instead of at home, the bureau allows unscrupulous legislatures to create phantom districts that sometimes contain more inmates than actual constituents. Politicians from these bogus districts can be elected with shockingly small numbers of votes. Once in office, they reward friends, punish enemies, and generally wield as much power as legislators from legitimate districts with many more real constituents.
It’s called prison-based gerrymandering. It violates the principle of one person, one vote. And it brings to mind the slave-era United States, when enslaved persons were denied the vote and counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning representation in Congress.
The obvious solution is for the census bureau to begin counting inmates at their homes instead of from their prison cells. But the bureau has so far failed to do this, despite increasing pressure from advocates, community groups and politicians. In New York, Democratic lawmakers are fuming about the way upstate Republicans parlayed the prison population into a political advantage.