Redistricting reform advocates want to end prison-based gerrymandering. Experts say it’s possible

‘Not one person in the prison system considers the prison they are incarcerated in to be their home.’

By: - August 8, 2021 6:30 am

When Monica Banks walked out of prison 20 years ago, she promised to be an advocate for those whose bodies help determine representation, but whose votes don’t always count — the people still inside.

Redistricting reform advocates lost their chance at having an independent commission determine state legislative districts. But they’re not giving up on pushing for a fair process, and many of them are starting with prison-based gerrymandering.

Banks, an organizer with Free the Ballot, a Pennsylvania-based social justice group, was one of the dozens of reform advocates who testified before the Legislative Reappointment Commission this week as its members work to redraw the state’s House and Senate maps. These are the boundaries that determine representation in the General Assembly for the next 10 years.

“Can you picture someone counting your vote in their district, but you’re not able to vote? Can you imagine being counted as a resident where you happen to be detained on Census Day? What about your body being counted, but representation is few and far?” Banks asked the five-member panel during a hearing last Tuesday where it sought input from the public. 

The U.S. Census, which happens every 10 years, and collects population data that helps determine funding, apportionment, and redistricting, counts incarcerated people as residents of the county where they’re imprisoned. 

That place, however, might not be where they call home.

The vast majority of states, including Pennsylvania, make the same assumption when voting lines are drawn. It’s a practice that can inflate population data with individuals who don’t necessarily live in a voting district full-time.

“Individuals that are incarcerated feel like their bodies are being used as numbers,” Banks said. “Not one person in the prison system considers the prison they are incarcerated in to be their home.”

A handful of states have changed practices for allocating inmate data during the redistricting process legislatively, using an incarcerated person’s address before imprisonment for district maps. Ten states will launch reallocation policies during this cycle, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Right now, Pennsylvania is not one of them, and advocates want to change that, arguing that reallocating prison data for redistricting will reflect more accurate representation throughout the state.

“Individuals that are incarcerated feel like their bodies are being used as numbers. Not one person in the prison system considers the prison they are incarcerated in to be their home.”

– Monica Banks

“We know we will not have fair and equitable elections until incarcerated men and women are counted in the communities they care about,” Carol Kuniholm, executive director of Fair Districts Pennsylvania, a nonpartisan group, said during a Capitol rally last Wednesday. 

Kuniholm, a longtime advocate for redistricting reform, was joined by representatives from Better Pennsylvania, Free the Ballot, the League of Women Voters, and Pennsylvania Voice, all of whom called to end prison-based gerrymandering.

As of June, more than 37,000 Pennsylvanians are in prison, according to Department of Corrections data. That’s a little more than half the population of a state House district.

2019 study conducted by Rory Kramer and Brianna Remster, sociologists at Villanova University, found that using an incarcerated person’s last address before being imprisoned would make four districts — in rural, predominantly white parts of the state — too small for redistricting guidelines. Reallocation would also make four districts too big. As a result, Philadelphia could gain an additional majority-minority district for the state Legislature. 

The study concluded that incarcerated individuals are not only “missing from their communities,” but “they are also advantaging other communities.”

Kramer and Remster, who testified before the redistricting commission this week, found that prison-based gerrymandering shifts representation in a racially unequal manner. Rural districts in western and central Pennsylvania are typically the “winners” of prison-based gerrymandering, Remster said, because they often contain a large prison or jail.

“That means that those facilities are artificially inflating their size with people who are not from that area and would not have been there on Census Day if they were not imprisoned at the moment,” Remster said.

She added: “White residents tend to gain representation thanks to the locations of prison facilities in districts that are disproportionately white and because whites are less likely to live, on average, in districts with a large number of residents sent elsewhere via incarceration. In contrast, the average Black or Latinx Pennsylvanian lives in a district that has less of a voice because more than 300 residents of their communities were counted elsewhere.”

Study results show that prison-based gerrymandering did not advantage one political party over another. Kramer and Remster said the most time-consuming aspect of conducting the study was the estimation study because the Department of Corrections “has better data than we did,” he added.

Commission Chairman Mark Nordenberg has not taken a stance on reallocation, but said it took staff most of the summer to obtain address data from the Department of Corrections to consider the proposal. He added that the vendor working with the state on redistricting didn’t find the information as easy to compute as Kramer and Remster did.

House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, both commission members, support reallocating prison data for redistricting. 

Pa. redistricting is poised to be transparent. Will it be fair? Advocates think yes.

McClinton argues the current method violates state law, which says “no individual who is confined in a penal institution shall be deemed a resident of the election district where the institution is located.”

“The individual shall be deemed to reside where the individual was last registered before being confined in the penal institution,” the law continues.

But Republicans on the commission — House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland — aren’t sure reallocation is the best strategy.

In May, House GOP spokesperson Jason Gottesman said that the General Assembly should be cautious when reallocating data, arguing that it was contrary to Census guidance and “how our state Constitution requires the commission to use the federal decennial census data.” He added that counting incarcerated people at their home address should also apply to individuals who live in group homes — nursing homes, military barracks, or college dorms.

Arguing that the commission doesn’t have time to reallocate data for redistricting, Ward thinks legislative action is the best way to address questions about how to count mobile groups. She’s also suggested that incarcerated populations should be marked as residents of their prison facility, saying that’s where they live and use county-funded resources.

“The incarcerated are being moved by the state against their will for reasons that the state has. A college student picks. An incarcerated person is connected still to their home community, even if they cannot physically be in their home community,” Kramer said, addressing Ward. “That is where they care about. That is where their friends are. That is where their family is. That’s where their kid goes to school. That is the legislator that they are going to contact when they have an issue — not where they are incarcerated.”

Data from the U.S. Census will be released on Aug. 12, four days earlier than expected. The Pennsylvania Constitution requires that legislative reapportionment is completed no later than 90 days after the commission has been certified or U.S. Census data is available, whichever is later.

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