In September, federal courts allowed a lawsuit against “prison gerrymandering” in Connecticut to move forward. Minnesota would do well to follow that lead.
The suit, filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), seeks to end the practice of counting inmates in their place of detention rather than in their home districts. If successful, this policy change could have important implications for the upcoming 2020 census count, the redrawing of voting districts and distribution of political power.
Counting inmates where they are imprisoned benefits the district — usually predominantly white, rural areas — in which a prison is located. The count of the incarcerated population inflates the numbers of a district, which can translate to greater political representation and power, especially in a state legislature and at local levels.
This is the case in several parts of Minnesota. After the 2010 census, the Prison Policy Initiative released a study showing that Waseca County’s Fifth District counted 24% of its population as incarcerated. But since inmates cannot vote, the additional political power their presences gives the district benefits only the voting residents. Per the report, this “effectively [gave] each group of 76 people in District 5 as much political clout as 100 people elsewhere [in the county].”
The consequence of prison gerrymandering is not just one of overrepresentation but one of underrepresentation as well. Because prison populations tend to be disproportionately black and brown and from urban areas, representation and power is being diverted from their communities of origin to other parts of the state.
Minnesota’s population is estimated to be 6.8% black, but black Minnesotans are represented in state prisons at three to four times that rate. Similarly, Native American make up only 1.4% of Minnesota’s population while making up 3% to 18% of the inmates in various state prisons.
People from the seven-county metro area typically make up close to half or over half of a state prison’s population, which can dilute urban representation and overemphasize the influence of rural areas where prisons are located. This is not even counting the federal and county prisons in the state.
The effects of ending prison gerrymandering in Minnesota could be important in terms of improving urban and minority representation. For example, a study by Villanova University researchers found that counting inmates in Pennsylvania at their pre-incarceration address could potentially lead to the creation of another minority-majority district in the state.
While the potential effects for Minnesota have not been as extensively quantified, this study suggests that changes could be dramatic.
Banning prison gerrymandering would also bring Minnesota closer in line with its own Constitution, which states that “for the purpose of voting no person loses residence solely by reason … [of being] confined in any public prison.” Prison gerrymandering negates this by strictly counting inmates as residing in the same district as their prison. In fact, Minnesota is one of the few states that mandates that its localities use “prisoner-inclusive data” when redistricting. Other states give either no clear direction or allow localities to opt out of the practice.
As Minnesotans, we should be concerned that certain votes are being diluted while other voices overamplified by prison gerrymandering. The upcoming census gives Minnesota an opportunity to reform its redistricting practices. While the census may still count inmates as residing in their places of detention, the state can choose to discount that data when drawing districts both at the state and local level or adjust district sizes to account for correctional facilities.
While Minnesota state legislators have introduced prison gerrymandering reforms in the past, no bills have been successful so far. Recounting inmates in their districts of origin would put Minnesota in good company. Already legislators in California, Delaware, Nevada, Maryland, New York and Washington state have passed bills ending prison gerrymandering, with suits pending in several other states.
This may prove a complicated task, depending on the available data and capacity of a detention center or district to undertake this administrative project. But it is an effort Minnesota must invest in if it wants to give more equal representation to all people.
Cory Georgopoulos is a graduate student in public policy at the University of Minnesota.