New York’s Phantom Constituents
As I have written about before, under the Census Bureau's usual residence rule, various upstate counties in New York State count prisoners as residents, even though most of the prisoners come from the five boroughs of New York City, most will be returning to their downstate communities, and none can vote while imprisoned. The counties' illogical "residency" rules enables the existence of political districts (since voting districts must meet certain population requirements). Counting inmates as residents, then, siphons political power away from inmates' home districts, and has at times propped up politicians who then support legislation injurious to the inmates' home communities.
This policy not only uses inmates to design "dummy" districts, it also dilutes the voting power of rural residents who reside in the same community as a prison, but not in its district. For instance, if a district encompasses a town with a prison, so that counting the prisoners as inmates results in two-third of the district's population being prisoners, the residents of that district have three times the political power of other county residents who do not have prisons in their districts.
New Yorkers are not the only ones harmed by the Census Bureau's residency rules for prisoners; according to the 2000 Census, twenty-one counties across the country had 21% percent of their population in prisons and jails. These numbers can lead to numerous statistical oddities; for instance, the Census reported 56 counties becoming more populous when, in fact, their free populations were declining. In New York, 30% of "new residents" upstate in the 1990's were, in fact, prisoners.
This summer, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) issued a report identifying which counties in New York State exclude prisoners from their redistricting data, as well as analyzing the damage to democracy done in those counties that count prisoners as residents. The report found that whereas 13 counties adjusted the Census to avoid distorting local democracy with large prison populations, 16 counties included the prison populations in their redistricting, five of which - Chautauqua, Livingston, Oneida, Madison, and St. Lawrence - thereby significantly diluted the voting power if its residents in excess of 20% (due to the size of their prison populations).
New York State allows counties to choose whether to exclude their prison populations in their redistricting schemes. Those counties that have attempted a fair drawing of legislative districts in recognition of the inequity of this illogical system have shined an even harsher light on the counties that continue to count prisoners as residents. Franklin County, for example, excludes state prisoners from its base figures used to create its legislative districts. As the PPI report notes, "otherwise, two-thirds of one local district would consist of disenfranchised prisoners from other parts of the state. Such a district would dilute the votes of every Franklin County resident who lives outside that area and badly skew representation in the local legislature."
Essex County explained that it does not count prisoners because they "live in a separate environment, do not participate in the life of Essex County, and do not affect the social and economic character of the towns" where they are incarcerated, and therefore cannot be residents. Unfortunately, many counties have not followed Essex's lead.
To remedy this problem, New York State Senator Eric Schneiderman has proposed the Prisoner Census Adjustment Act, which, in Senator Schneiderman's words, "would require that New York count prisoners at their last known addresses, rather than at their temporary place of incarceration. ... If we are committed to restoring a modicum of basic justice to the poor and minority communities that suffer the most from crime and punishment in our state, we must assure that this bill is on our agenda when the legislature reconvenes next year."
It is time New York, states across the nation, and the Census Bureau stop making excuses and start taking seriously the political rights of both rural and urban communities. By ending the practice of counting prisoners as residents of their prisons' counties, we can make an honest democracy of America yet (well, then we would also need to address minor issues such as campaign finance, electronic voting, gerrymandering, the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore, etc., but at least it would be a start).