OP-ED | Unfair Voting Districts and Prison Gerrymandering Weaken Democracy
You probably wouldn’t think of a prison as your home, if you happened to be locked up in one. But when the state draws legislative districts and figures out funding for towns, that’s exactly how they see it.
Prison gerrymandering is the term for the practice of counting the inmates held in a prison as residents of the town where the prison sits instead of residents of the towns they actually lived in before incarceration. What that means is that the rural districts where prisons are located have their populations artificially inflated, and the votes of the people in those districts are weighted more heavily than other districts. It’s a lousy, deeply unfair system.
The district that is the poster child for this problem is the 59th House District, represented by Rep. David Kiner, D-Enfield. This district has about 3,200 prisoners in it, many of whom can’t vote. Take those prisoners away, and the district shrinks from around 24,000 people to 21,000, which is significantly smaller than other districts. It wouldn’t meet federal minimum population requirements, and it would violate the principle of “one man, one vote.”
The 59th District is where I live. Therefore, because the district’s numbers were padded by prisoners, my vote counts a little more than yours does. Unfair, right? Absolutely!
In fact, prison gerrymandering was recently ruled to be unconstitutional by a federal court in Florida, which ruled that counting inmates as residents for the purposes of drawing districts violated “one man, one vote.” This ruling is a huge victory for anyone interested in fair elections and fair districts, and the consequences could be far-reaching.
Several states, including prison-heavy California and New York, have banned prison gerrymandering. So what are we waiting for?
Whenever an unfair practice continues for decades like this despite clear and obvious reasons to scrap it, there’s a fair chance money’s involved somewhere. Lo and behold, the state also uses these inflated numbers to determine how much money towns get. And there’s the sticking point. Enfield’s delegation in the legislature has consistently opposed reforming prison gerrymandering because the town would lose state funding, and Enfield already feels Connecticut has skimped on PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) payments.
So on the one hand, you have an unconstitutional violation of voting principles that are the bedrock of our democracy, but on the other hand you have a town that’s grumpy because prisoners use the sewer system too much and the state owes them money.
Clearly an impossible choice.
The entire way we draw districts could use an overhaul. In another blow to unfair elections, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 this week that counting only voters instead of residents when creating districts was unconstitutional.
That ruling “is a huge win for our democracy,” said Cheri Quickmire of Connecticut Common Cause. “It affirms the principle that everyone counts and everyone deserves representation.” The impact of the ruling on Connecticut isn’t certain, yet, but anything that makes voting districts fairer and more representative is a step in the right direction.
All of this is why Connecticut needs to take steps to reform its clunky, awful reapportionment and redistricting laws. Right now a legislative committee made of three Republicans and three Democrats is appointed every decade to redraw the lines. In 2011, this was a disaster. Lines could be drawn to protect incumbents or punish members who don’t toe the party line, and districts could end up looking very unusual, like the 1st Congressional District. Even then, the committee couldn’t agree and someone from the outside was brought in to finalize the map.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Districts should be compact, make sense geographically, and be inclusive. A committee of impartial citizens, geographers, or retired judges or others who have no stake in the political outcomes would do a better job of creating fair districts. The legislature still has time to act to change the constitution before the next round of reapportionment in 2021.
In the meantime, they can move to correct the obvious injustice of prison gerrymandering. There’s a bill out there now (SB 459) that deserves a vote. And I’ll say to the Enfield town council and legislative delegation right now, if my mill rate goes up because something that was terribly wrong was righted, I’m fine with it. Drop your opposition. Count inmates as residents of the towns they came from, not the place where they’re held.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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