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Nominal Representation Without Actual Representation: One Person, No Vote

by Ed Lyon

In the antebellum South, the Missouri Compromise allowed for every slave to count as four-fifths of a person for census and representative purposes.

In our current, much more enlightened nation, every prisoner counts as an entire person for census and representative purposes. One thing that has yet to change is neither the slave of yesteryear, nor the prisoner of the present, is allowed to cast a vote. Another is the gerrymandering effect this has always had favoring traditionally less populated rural areas at the expense of urban population centers.

There are several reasons why many prisons are constructed in rural areas, far from urban population centers. After the civil war, convict leasing replaced chattel slavery on plantations and large farms. Thus, prisons were located in areas close to the plantations and farms leasing convicts. In Texas for example, the W.F. Ramsey Plantation in Rosharon eventually became state property and were known as the Ramsey I, Ramsey II and Ramsey III prison units, although the latter two have been renamed as the Stringfellow and Terrell prison units.

Placing prisons far from prying eyes allowed for torturous prisoner abuse. Cheap land and real estate was another, historic, driving factor in prison placement. In more modern times, prisons have been seen as a motor for economic development or welfare for poor, rural, white communities that were dying economically as resources, and jobs, left for other places. In the past 30 years of massive prison building, virtually all prisons have been built in rural areas far from the cities that generate most of the prisoners.

By censusing prisoners in these rural areas, the citizen count for representation increases—even though the prisoners are denied a vote and the politicians elected to represent them are never responsive to the prisoners in their districts who can neither vote for them nor give them money.

Since current prison demographics show that in some states the majority of prisoners are people of color, their census numbers in the urban areas where most of them come from are proportionately diminished as is their representative voice in the legislature. While in prison their numbers increase the representation of, to them, a foreign and comparative sparsely populated district they have no stake in because of the transitory nature of their habitation.

The United States Census Bureau (USCB) is an innocent-sounding name for a government bureaucracy wielding an incredible influence on the ability of states to gerrymander its voting districts. Simply by adopting and following a policy of counting citizens where they eat meals and rest instead of their nativity, the “usual residence” rule came into being. For a prisoner, the result is that they are censused in the area they are incarcerated.

For instance, Connecticut has 151 state representative districts. Nine of them meet the minimum population requirement to qualify as a district only because of prisons located there. Were those prisoners censused at their nativities there would be a disruption so great that not just those nine, but 22 districts would have to be redrawn.

A more glaring example is Juneau County, Wisconsin. A whopping 80% of a representative district there consists of state prisoners. Even tiny Rhode Island reports one representative district where prisoners account for 16% of the censused population while only 4% claim that district as their nativity.

Drawing from former President Trump’s style, Florida Republican state representative Janet Adkins openly boasts of using prisoners to gerrymander districts. Draw districts “in such a fashion so perhaps a majority, or maybe not a majority, but a number of them will live in prisons, thereby not being able to vote,” lectured Adkins. In other words, an opposite reality of the “one person, one vote” constitutional principle our representative democracy purportedly holds dear, in some places they practice one person, no vote.

This writer was interviewed for the 2010 census. Although personal questions about sex, race, family, education and job history were asked, the census taker finally responded to my repeated questions about why I had been chosen to be interviewed and not prisoners in the neighboring cells, she responded: “It is actually the bunk, or housing area you occupy that is being censused, not you.” I later sought assistance from the Congressperson for that district, only to be referred to the Congressperson for my native district, who re-referred me to the one for the district from which I had been censused. Thus, as a prisoner, I had representation without representation.

The quickest, and perhaps the easiest solution to this political representative disparity would be for the USCB to simply do away with its “usual residence” policy. Prisoners would be either censused in their nativity or home of record at the time of their conviction. The Supreme Court has ruled in Franklin v. Massachusetts that a person’s residence is not necessarily where they reside but where they have some “allegiance or enduring tie.”

This solution already enjoys popular support among an overwhelming majority of nonprisoner citizens at large. Public comment returned to the USCB on the question of its “usual residence” policy for prisoner census counting numbered 77,887.

An amazing 99.97% of these (77,863 comments out of the 77,887 total returns) stated prisoners should be census counted at their home addresses. Despite this near-unanimous response, even with the SCOTUS decisions in accord, the USCB still allows the “usual residence” rule to remain in place and in use. This continues to dilute the notion of one person, one vote. 



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