General Assembly districts must be about equal in population. Instead of using U.S. Census population data to draw new district lines, some activists want to deviate from it. Rather than …
General Assembly districts must be about equal in population. Instead of using U.S. Census population data to draw new district lines, some activists want to deviate from it. Rather than counting prison inmates where they were at the time the census was taken, these activists demand that prison inmates be counted where they lived before going to prison. They claim that prison inmates are unique and should be counted differently than the rest of the population. They allege that following the U.S. Census’s approach to counting prison inmates is “prison gerrymandering” and a “racist practice.” This is just overheated rhetoric. Prison inmates are not unique. Following the U.S. Census does not lead to gerrymandering in Rhode Island and is not racist. Rhode Island should continue to follow the U.S. Census.
For more than two centuries, the U.S. Census has counted prison inmates as residing at prisons because that is where they were when the census is taken. This policy of counting people where they are at the time of the census applies not only to prison inmates, but to people in group living quarters such as college students. A large majority of states, including Massachusetts, follow the U.S. Census in counting prison inmates.
Those seeking to deviate from the U.S. Census claim that prison inmates are unique because prisoners do not vote, are transient, and do not interact with elected officials like other constituents. They are wrong. First, there are other groups who are not voters. For example, children, and non-U.S. citizens, including those who are illegally in this nation, do not vote but all are included in the population count for redistricting the same way as voters. Second, there are other groups that are transient. For example, college students are included in the population count. In fact, out-of-state college students can be counted as residing in one state by the U.S. Census although they vote in another state. Third, there are other groups who do not interact with elected officials. For example, small children and the mentally incapacitated generally do not interact with elected officials, but they are all included in the population count just like typical constituents.
These activists also claim that following the U.S. Census for counting prison inmates is gerrymandering and racist. They are wrong again.
First, following the U.S. Census for prison inmates has not led to political gerrymandering in Rhode Island. In 1906, the General Assembly followed the U.S. Census’s approach regarding prison inmates and granted Cranston an additional representative. For more than a century, numerous people from both political parties have been elected to the state legislature and the city council from districts which included prison inmates. Adherence to the U.S. Census policy for counting prison inmates was not done to favor a particular candidate or a political party.
Second, following the U.S. Census is not causing malapportionment type gerrymandering in Rhode Island. Malapportionment occurs when a small group of voters are given the same or greater amount of representation as a large group of voters. Because the prison population is so small, about 2,442 persons, it is a rather low percentage of any city ward or state legislative district’s population. More importantly, the districts which include the prison population have more registered voters than other districts. For example, House District 15 has more voters than two-thirds of other representative districts. Senate District 27 has more voters than a majority of other senate districts. Cranston Ward 6 has more voters than Cranston Ward 3. Also, the districts that include the prison population actually cast more votes than some other districts. For example, House District 15 cast 8,285 votes for president in 2020 while House District 1, which includes thousands of out-of-state Brown University students, only cast 4,553 votes for president in 2020. If prison gerrymandering is occurring in Cranston, then college gerrymandering is occurring in Providence. Ironically, some activists alleging prison gerrymandering live in districts that have fewer voters and cast fewer votes than the districts which include the prison.
Third, following the U.S. Census is not racist. In 2016, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously determined that Cranston’s inclusion of prison inmates in its ward redistricting plan was constitutional. Justice Sandra Lynch, a Clinton appointee, noted that the ACLU, who sued Cranston, did not even claim that minority groups were discriminated against or their votes were diluted under Cranston’s redistricting plan. This court would never have allowed Cranston’s redistricting plan to include prison inmates if it was a racist practice.
Departing from the U.S. Census for counting prison inmates is not only unjustifiable; it requires the use of unreliable information, and is unfair to Cranston taxpayers. The Department of Corrections has stated that the pre-incarceration addresses they have may not be reliable. Even if some pre-incarceration addresses are accurate, some inmates have no ties to their former address. A majority of these inmates are in prison for felonies so they may be there for years. When they leave prison, many do not return to their pre-incarceration address.
However, while prison inmates are living in Cranston, they receive fire and police services. These services are paid for by Cranston taxpayers. The state aid Cranston receives for the prison does not reimburse the city for these services. Instead, it only partially compensates the city for the prison property being non-taxable. Requiring Cranston taxpayers to provide services to prison inmates but having other municipalities represent them at the General Assembly is unfair.
In truth, some of those alleging prison gerrymandering are doing so for partisan advantage. The advocates for reallocating prison inmates never mention the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls. Furthermore, according to Kimball Brace, the state redistricting consultant, “the concept of shifting the population of the prisons back to their original home … became popular among Democratic party officials” so as “to bring more Democratic seats to Congress and the state legislature.” But, even if the prison inmates were reallocated, there would be no impact on Democratic urban districts in the General Assembly. The number of prison inmates in Rhode Island is just too small.
While these activists keep themselves busy alleging “prison gerrymandering,” some incumbent legislators will quietly but undoubtedly get their districts drawn to ensure their reelection. Now, that type of gerrymandering actually does exist in Rhode Island.
Steven Frias is Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman, a historian, recipient of The Coolidge Prize for Journalism, and former Chairman of the Cranston Charter Review Commission.
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