Aug. 19, 2021 2:35 pm

Let the LRC know — It’s time to end prison gerrymandering

Prison gerrymandering is the practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of their cells instead of their hometowns. It isn't equitable and it isn't legal, says guest columnist Brenda Marrero.

Every 10 years, following the census, states are required to redraw district lines.

(Illustration by Jared Rodriguez for Truthout. From Flickr Creative Commons, CC BY NC ND 2.0)

This guest column was written by Brenda Marrero, the executive director of the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia.
Over the last decade, the Public Interest Law Center has been at the forefront in protecting the right to vote in Pennsylvania.
  • In 2012 we successfully challenged state legislative maps that needlessly split municipalities in violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
  • In 2014 we permanently blocked enforcement of Pennsylvania’s strict photo ID requirement for voting, which would have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of citizens, many of whom are low-income, minority, elderly, or disabled voters.
  • In 2018 we persuaded the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to strike down Pennsylvania’s congressional map, one of the worst partisan gerrymanders in American history.
  • In 2020 when the Trump campaign filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the Pennsylvania Department of State from certifying the presidential election results —invalidating the votes of 7 million people — the Law Center was part of a team of lawyers who blocked this threat to our democracy.

And as Pennsylvania redraws its election district lines this fall, the Law Center is keeping a close watch.

Specifically, we are advocating for Pennsylvania’s Legislative Redistricting Commission (LRC) to draw Pennsylvania’s new state house and senate districts without prison gerrymandering.

“Prison gerrymandering” is the practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of their cells instead of their hometowns.

Pennsylvania’s prisons are clustered in rural parts of the Commonwealth, while prisoners are disproportionately urban and Black. Prisoners seldom have ties to the communities near their prisons and nearly always return to their hometowns upon release. They cannot use their temporary prison addresses to vote in local elections or enroll their kids in public schools. Legislators who represent districts containing prisons generally do not treat people incarcerated there as constituents.

Prison gerrymandering distorts our democracy by reducing representation for predominantly Black communities, and by shifting electoral power from cities to rural regions.

“One person, one vote” is basic to our democracy. If our new state legislative maps are drawn with prisoners counted at their cells, the electoral power of voters in North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia will be diluted, diminishing representation in Harrisburg for Black voters and for Philadelphia as a whole. The “winners” of this imbalance would be voters and legislators in rural counties in Central and Western Pennsylvania.

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That’s not equitable. It’s also not legal.

Under the Pennsylvania Election Code, incarcerated people are deemed to be residents of their pre-incarceration addresses, not their cells.

In addition, dilution of representation through prison gerrymandering violates multiple provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution, including Article II, § 16, which requires that districts be “as nearly equal in population as practicable,” and Article I, § 5, which mandates that elections be “free and equal.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court provided helpful additional guidance in its 2018 congressional gerrymandering decision, by clarifying that Pennsylvania’s “one person, one vote” rule focuses on the “residents” of the districts.

At least 10 other states will draw new district maps this year with prisoners correctly counted at their home addresses. Pennsylvania can and should join them.

Following years of advocacy by the Law Center and others, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections assembled a database of state prisoners’ home addresses in advance of the 2020 Census. The time has come for the Legislative Reapportionment Commission to use this database, along with the Census reports, to draw new districts without prison gerrymandering. All the needed tools are already available for the LRC to end this inequitable and illegal practice.

The LRC invites Pennsylvanians to provide public comments on legislative redistricting. Visit https://www.redistricting.state.pa.us/comment/ and let them know it’s time to end prison gerrymandering.


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