Maryland Ends Prison-Based Gerrymandering

Chip Shields

From the Washington Post:

Maryland will become the first state in the country to redraw districts by counting prisoners in their home towns instead of their cells, a change that is expected to help Baltimore avoid losing political power.

Civil rights advocates praised the No Representation Without Population Act signed Tuesday by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). The National Urban League and the ACLU are among groups that have called for an end to "prison-based gerrymandering," and similar changes have been considered by at least seven other states.

"The vast majority will be going back to where they came from, and what this will do is count them where they live," said Hilary O. Shelton, head of the Washington office of the NAACP.

This morning The New York Times editorial board called on other states to follow:

Maryland struck a blow for electoral fairness this week with a new law requiring that prison inmates be counted at their home addresses when legislative districts are redrawn after the 2010 census. Other states should follow.

Counting inmates as residents — prison-based gerrymandering — inflates populations and exaggerates the power of the mainly rural districts where prisons tend to get built. It undercuts the power of the mainly urban districts where the inmates come from, their families live, and to which they return after release.

With 1.4 million inmates nationally, the practice of drawing districts around prisons can easily shift a state’s balance of legislative power. And while most states have laws saying that prisons are not legitimate residences, the practice persists for reasons of politics or inertia. Since the national census does not ask for prisoners’ home addresses, to get the right count, state bureaucracies need to use other available records.

Lawmakers in Maryland acted after learning how the prison count had distorted their political landscape. In one state legislative district, nearly a fifth of the population are inmates, most of whom hail from elsewhere in the state. In one county commission district, inmates account for 64 percent of the population.

Studies have shown that many states have districts that would probably be illegal had they not been padded with inmates who often come from hundreds of miles away. More than a half dozen states seem poised to follow Maryland’s example. That is an important start.

We will have SB 1028 ready to go in January 2011 to do just that.

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    Seems real simple to me. If prisoners are counted as residents of the towns and counties where they reside in prison, for redistricting purposes, then that's where they're residents for voting purposes.

    It'd be real interesting to see who gets elected mayor of Sheridan if that happens.

    Just like Members of Congress are residents of their home states, even though they spend the majority of time in Washington DC, prisoners should be counted as residents of their hometowns, not wherever the state has decided to temporarily house them.

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    One technical question, Chip. Is the Census collecting the relevant data to make this happen?

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    How interesting that a democrat would use the term "Gerrymandering". I believe it was Boss Tweed that invented the practice and it was perfected by reconstruction era democrats.

    Now, the important question. Did they also address college students? If not, the law change is a sham.

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    Now, the important question. Did they also address college students? If not, the law change is a sham.

    I disagree. I'm the parent of a college student..and it's not as cut and dried as the prison situation. College students, especially early on, have a very bifurcated existence. They live at home 3-4 months out of the year.

    It's not the same.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)

    "How interesting that a democrat would use the term "Gerrymandering". I believe it was Boss Tweed that invented the practice and it was perfected by reconstruction era democrats."

    How interesting that someone with such strong opinions is so unencumbered by actual knowledge. Gerrymandering is named after Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts: see

    Gerrymandering is an inherent risk in creating single-member districts for political representation; unless strong safeguards are used (such as in Iowa, where districting is done by a ruthlessly nonpartisan system that uses a system of objective criteria), it is present wherever lines are drawn.

    Gerrymandering is probably a poor label for prison-disfranchisement, since it refers to drawing lines so as to maximize the number of safe districts for ones own party while minimizing the number of safe districts for opponents. Prison disfranchisement does contribute to the gerrymander in that prisoners shipped off to the (typically GOP stronghold) boondocks allows the GOP to safely put more actual voters into other districts to contest them.

    Funny I don't hear you complaining about wealthy individuals with second homes in Bend and Bandon, only those dastardly college students. There are a number of states where enclaves of rich people have been discovered where the "residents" are registered in two states simultaneously . . . it's not gerrymandering, but it's much worse of a problem than a college student who wants to vote once.

  • Lord Beaverbrook (unverified)

    This is great news. Maryland, and Baltimore in particular, have been addressing the day on day crap that makes this country so third world sometimes. At least, with this, they won't have the Catholic Church fighting them in court, as the City of Balitmore does now. C of Baltimore passed the best leg I've seen in a long time, requiring "Emergency Pregnancy Centers" that are right wing fronts to explicitly advertise/post that they do not perform abortions, family planning, or give referrals for the aforementioned.

  • Sen Chip Shields (unverified)

    Kari asked: Is the Census collecting the relevant data to make this happen?

    No, states would have to determine the information from justice records. The census will be providing states with the final per prison inmate counts earlier than they have in the past. This early prison count informaiton will allow states to remove inmates from the count altogether if they chose to do so. That approach could be a potential middle-ground solution for some states. We're looking into it.

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    Ah yes, of course. The states know exactly who is in their prisons on a given day. Duh. Thanks.

  • Janice Thompson (unverified)

    Regarding the question of students, the important thing to keep in mind is that they are constituents voluntarily living in college towns. Indeed, they are often encouraged to move off campus and shop in town etc - all things that would get prisoners in prison towns in big trouble.

    This is a link to a discussion of this topic by the Prison Policy Initiative

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    Have you discussed this with Jackie Winters and other Salem-based legislators? I suspect they would make the argument that their districts bear the direct and collateral costs of housing inmates.

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