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April 10, 2007 - Prison Policy Initiative (US)

The Census' Prisoner Miscount Distorts Democracy

Interactive Democracy Toolkit Helps Grassroots Democracy Activists

by Peter Wagner

The [U.S.] Census Bureau counts prisoners as if they lived voluntarily in the communities where they are incarcerated. And though most states bar prisoners from voting, the inaccurate census figures allow state lawmakers to pad district populations when drawing legislative maps.

This creates prison districts with disproportionate voting power and drains political influence from the urban districts where most prisoners live.

Today the Prison Policy Initiative launched the Democracy Toolkit, a set of online tools designed to help rural citizens determine if prison populations in legislative districts are diluting their right to equal representation.

Despite the fact that people in prison remain legal residents of the place they lived prior to their incarceration, the Census Bureau counts people in prison as if they were willing residents of the prison location.

If used for redistricting, these Census counts of the prison populations can seriously distort county decision making. Because county district sizes tend to be relatively small, a single prison can have a significant impact.

For example, if a district's population is one-half prisoners, the resident population of that district would have twice the voting power of other districts in the county.

"This groundbreaking toolkit is incredibly useful in the grassroots effort to ensure equal representation for all," says Dan Jenkins, a voting rights activist in Franklin County, New York.

"County legislatures need citizen oversight, and the Democracy Toolkit offers step-by-step guidance to help activists ensure that voting rights are not diluted or distorted by the Census Bureau's mistakes."

The toolkit offers step-by-step instructions to help residents of rural communities with prisons determine whether including prisoners in the population base harms their access to government, to quantify that harm, and to advocate for a better democracy.

The toolkit includes the Correctional Facility Locator, which provides a simple interface to locate prison populations in the Census.

The toolkit is designed to analyze county legislatures, but can also be used for other forms of district-based government at the regional, county and local level, including city councils and school boards.

The Democracy Toolkit is available at:

Prisoners of the Census is a project of the Prison Policy Initiative.

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