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U.S. Census and Incarceration

Published: January 27, 2010

At present, incarcerated individuals are counted by the U.S. Census Bureau at the locations where they are incarcerated, rather than at their prior addresses, in their home communities. These two addresses are usually far from each other, and coupled with the nation’s rising incarceration rate, lead to a systematic distortion of the population picture.

When jurisdictions draw their district lines, they build this distortion into the distribution of democracy. Districts with prisons are constructed on the backs of “ghost voters,” packing in prisoners who count toward the district size but who, with few exceptions, are not permitted to vote, and who, with few exceptions, have no connection whatsoever to the other residents of the district. This artificially inflates the political power of residents in prison districts, and artificially deflates the power of residents everywhere else. 

The skew can become quite extreme: in 2006, for example, voters in three of the city council wards of Anamosa, Iowa, were busily engaged in the democratic process. But 1300 of the 1358 individuals allotted to ward 2 were incarcerated — and so the city councilman was elected with one write-in vote from his wife and one from his neighbor. 

The Brennan Center works on alternatives to the status quo — different voting rules or redistricting processes — that help eliminate or mitigate the skew.

Recent Changes

The U.S. Census Bureau has agreed to identify which census blocks contain group quarters such as correctional facilities as early as May 2011, so that state and local redistricting bodies can choose to use this data to draw fair districts and avoid prison-based gerrymandering. This interim solution of releasing accelerated data identifying prison populations will assist governments that wish to make their own adjustments for state and local redistricting.  View press release.

Maryland—In April, 2010, Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law the No Representation Without Population Act.

Delaware – In August 2010, Delaware Governor Jack Markell signed into law H.B. 384.

New York – In August 2010, New York passed a bill to end prison-based gerrymandering, which was included as part of the revenue budget, A.9710D/S.6610C, along with a technical amendment, A.11597/S.8415. Click here to read our press release. This legislation will use the 2010 Census to count people who are in prison in their home districts rather than the districts where they are incarcerated. View original press release.

Click here to read more about the Brennan Center’s support of reforms to end prison-based gerrrymandering in New York.

Pending Legislation

 View more pending legislation.