Stutz: Phantom voters

Connecticut, like the other 49 states, will carve up voters into legislative districts over the next year and a half, based on the 2010 census. One question looms large: Where do we count the 2.3 million men and women incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails, and the 20,000 in Connecticut — in their former neighborhoods or in their cells?

The answer is critical for drawing the boundaries of the legislative districts that determine how our state legislature is composed, and right now, they’re not being drawn fairly.

If legislators get to hand pick their voters by drawing district lines, we should at least require them to pick people who can vote. Yet, we don’t. Historically, when voting districts are drawn, prisoners are counted as residents of the places in which they’re incarcerated even though, in 48 states, prisoners can’t vote. Connecticut is one of these 48, but state law goes one step further: It does not recognize prisons as legal residences. Instead, prisoners remain residents of their former neighborhood, except when it comes to the census.

By miscounting prisoners as residents of prisons, our districting system distorts the constitutional principal of “one person, one vote.” As State Representative and Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary Mike Lawlor (D-East Haven) said at an event at Yale, “By relying on Census Bureau counts of prison populations to pad legislative districts with prisons, Connecticut is inflating the votes of residents who live near prisons at the expense of every other resident.”

Urban areas are hit particularly hard. According to the nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative, Connecticut’s prison population comes disproportionately from some cities, yet is counted mostly in other towns and rural districts. Without using prison populations as padding, seven districts are missing more than 5 percent of their required population. Each House district in Connecticut should have 22,553 residents. Yet in the Hartford suburb of Enfield, state district 59, which claims the populations of two large prisons, has only 19,200 actual residents.

The impact is felt in local elections as well. As Peter Wagner, executive director of Prison Policy Initiative, explains. “Towns such as Cheshire have been forced to draw council districts that are severely malapportioned because they treat prison populations as if they were actual residents, meaning that one district had 4,900 actual voters while another had only 3,700.”

The way to rectify this injustice is legislation to end prison gerrymandering. Many states have done just that. Maryland just voted overwhelmingly to pass a bill appropriately entitled, “No Representation Without Population,” and legislation is pending in New York, Illinois, Florida and Wisconsin.

Thankfully, in Connecticut, Lawlor and his colleagues, like Representative Gary Holder-Winfield (D-New Haven), are sponsoring a similar bill. Their bill would end the distortion of voting power by counting prisoners as residents of the communities where they are from—and where they eventually return. This will create fairer representation and align redistricting practice with the Connecticut laws that say prison isn’t a residence.

As we lock up more of our neighbors, our strange method of counting prisoners for the purpose of redistricting has become increasingly significant. Over the last 30 years the nation has gone from fewer than 500,000 inmates to more than 2.3 million, a nearly five-fold increase. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, we’ve added 400,000 inmates since the last census alone.

One day Connecticut might join Maine, Vermont and much of the developed world, by allowing its incarcerated citizens to vote. We might come to see voting as a fundamental right that extends to felons who we have already punished by taking away their liberty. But even if that is not a point of agreement, the way we count inmates now doesn’t make sense. As Holder-Winfeld says, “counting prisoners as residents of the prison districts where they do not vote or otherwise participate in those communities is simply bad policy.”

Until they can vote while they’re locked up, prisoners should be counted as residents of their neighborhood blocks, not their cellblocks.

Trevor Stutz is a first-year student at the Law School.

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