Maryland ends prison-based gerrymandering

May 4, 2010

In early April, Maryland took a bold step that corrects at least one democratic abuse of its prison population. On April 13, Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law the No Representation Without Population Act. This Act counts individuals who are in prison in their home districts rather than the districts where they are currently incarcerated, when redistricting.

The No Representation Without Population Act ends what many refer to as “prison-based gerrymandering” – a practice that artificially inflates the voting power of prison districts where people in prison are not permitted to vote, while diminishing the power of the prisoners’ home communities where they ultimately return. Though most everyone else gets legislative representation based on their legal residence, Maryland used to ignore residency — which doesn’t change when an individual is imprisoned — for its incarcerated population. Now, the Act will count individuals in prison at their last known residence for Congressional, State and local redistricting. 

The new law will help correct skewed representation of minority and urban communities across the state. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 68% of Maryland’s incarcerated individuals are from Baltimore, but only 17% of the state’s individuals are incarcerated – and counted – in the city. The Act also significantly impacts minority representation: Under the new law, many of Maryland’s districts will no longer be built on the backs of mostly African-American “ghost voters,” who count towards district size but are not allowed to vote. Instead, these individuals in prison will be rightfully counted at home, benefiting their predominately African-American communities. Since the average length of stay in Maryland’s prison is just a few years, most people in prison will return home well before the next decennial census. Counting these individuals at their last known address gives them the accurate representation they deserve.

A recent change by the Census Bureau has made it possible for other states to go at least halfway toward correcting distorted redistricting data, as Maryland has done. The Bureau still tallies people in prison where they are incarcerated. But until this year, the Bureau only published prison counts identified as such well after most states have completed their redistricting process. In early February, they agreed to identify where correctional facilities were located early enough so that state and local redistricting bodies can choose to use this data to stop counting incarcerated individuals where they don’t belong, even if they’re not entirely sure where the right home address is. That’s at least a substantial step toward drawing fairer districts. 

While more than 100 counties and local governments across the nation have refused to count prison populations at an incorrect address when redistricting, Maryland is the first state to also count them at home. Similar bills are pending in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New York and Rhode Island.

We applaud Maryland for starting what we hope is a trend among states. And we look to our state leaders to push for similar action nationally.