Residents of Groveland, New York, upstate in Livingston County, have something to get excited about. According to a report put out this year, 62 percent of the town’s population is incarcerated. That, in itself, is not something to be thrilled about, but because of the way the federal government counts prison populations, the presence of so many convicts gives a resident of Groveland 2.5 times the voting power of people living elsewhere in the county and more clout that their downstate counterparts.
The scenario is repeated elsewhere in New York State and across the country. It has prompted a growing discomfort with the voting power of upstate districts as opposed to downstate ones and spurred efforts to change the way the U.S. Census counts prisoners. The Census counts prisoners where they are incarcerated rather than where they came from. That count, conducted every 10 years, is used to draw lines for local, state and federal legislative districts and ensure all residents have equal representation and access to government. Because the Census inflates the population in areas with prisons â€“ and in New York that tends to be more rural, upstate counties â€“ it gives the residents of those districts more representatives in the state legislature and the House of Representatives than they would otherwise have. As a result, New York advocates and elected officials want the bureau to change the way it counts prisoners before the upcoming census in 2010.
This debate over this issue is particularly stark in New York. The so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws, enacted in 1973, have made New York State one of the strictest in the country for minimum sentencing of first time drug offenders. Since implementation of the laws, the prison population has grown tremendously. Today 65 percent of the state’s prisoners come from New York City, but the Census counts them as residents of the upstate areas â€“ even though New York State law defines residency as a place of “voluntary” inhabitance and prisoners are not voting members of the communities in which they are incarcerated.
Unequal Votes in New York
Including prisoners as residents of the counties where they are incarcerated gives those areas increased political clout, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative. Advocates argue that this practice has a huge impact on the drawing of district lines, especially at the local level.
Groups such as the Brennan Center for Justice, DEMOS, Citizens Against Recidivism and the Coalition for Parole Restoration argue that including prison populations in the place of their incarceration “dilutes” demographics by enlarging or qualifying districts for more representation than their actual population deserves.
Based on 2000 Census information used to draw district lines, Queens contains some of the most over-populated State Senate districts in New York with about 4 percent more people than average, according to one study. In short, Queens residents are under-represented in Albany, since their districts have far more people than some of the upstate ones.
The report found that 16 counties in the state included prisoners in their population numbers, while 13 others chose not to. The issue is a difficult one for counties. Sifting through Census population reports to determine the number of prisoners in a county can be a daunting task, according to Peter Wagner, executive director of Prisoner Policy Initiative and author of the report. As a result, Wagner writes, counties must choose between using inaccurate Census data to redraw district lines or adjusting population totals to exclude prisoners. Including prisoners can create imbalance at the local level, giving people in some parts of a county more voting power than those in other areas of the same county. Of the 16 counties including incarcerated people, five contained at least one city district where prisoners made up over 20 percent of the population — Chautauqua, Livingston, Oneida, Madison and St. Lawrence.
Some elected officials and advocates want all counties to exclude prisoners before drawing district lines. This, though, would be only half the battle. The Census Bureau does not provide counties with sufficient personal information so that those prisoners can be counted back in their home districts.
Calls for Change
While some advocates would like to see the Census Bureau change its policy on counting prisoners in counties, the likelihood that this will happen in time for 2010 appears slim. There is, however, an interim step. The Census Bureau report on county populations used to draw district lines does not indicate how many of the people in the total population are prisoners. The report that does provide that information comes out several months later, after many states have redrawn new district lines. To deal with this, some advocates want the Census Bureau to release its prison counts earlier so district lines can be drawn based on the population of actual residents.
State Senator Eric Schneiderman, whose district includes the Upper West Side, Morningside Heights, Washington Heights and Inwood, has announced a formal letter writing campaign to call upon the Census Bureau to change its policy for counting prisoners as well as including prisoner information in the initial Census to allow counties to more accurately draw district lines. “Disenfranchised people become an undeserved source of political power for legislators who benefit from locking up more people for longer sentences,” Schneiderman said.
Other elected officials also have called on the Census Bureau to collect the home addresses of all incarcerated people in the next census. “By counting prisoners in the places where they are incarcerated, the Census Bureau is effectively shortchanging my constituents from receiving fair representation,”said Assemblymember Adriano Espaillat.
Schneiderman has introduced legislation in the Senate to bring the counties into compliance with the state constitution’s definition of residency as a person’s “voluntary” residence. The legislation, also sponsored in the Assembly by Espaillat, would require state and local prison facilities to collect home addresses of all prisoners. The information would be provided to the State Board of Elections and used to adjust Census Bureau population data by noting where prisoners legally reside and mandating that the revised data be used to draw congressional, state and county districts.
As the Census draws nearer and legislators prepare for another round of redistricting, excluding prison populations from district numbers could put a number of upstate rural representatives at risk of losing their seats, given the unequal balance of district sizes across the state. At the same time, it would create new districts in the city.
For advocates and elected officials trumpeting the cause, there is some optimism. Wagner believes that after counties are presented with the proper data, they will remove prisoners from their counts. “We are expecting all of [the counties] to do it,” he said. But for now, everyone in Queens and other reportedly underrepresented counties will have to wait and hope all this activity means that in the next decade their votes will be worth a little more than they are today.
Andrea Senteno is program associate for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette. Jay Cerrato is a research and policy intern.