by Chuck Sharman
On February 14, 2023, Montana joined a dozen other states to end prison gerrymandering, the practice of having census takers count prisoners where they are incarcerated, rather than in their hometowns. It is also the third state to do so without enacting a new law.
Gerrymandering weaponizes political redistricting to disperse a party’s voters over several districts, diluting their power at the voting booth. The name was borrowed from former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who was in office when an 1812 state redistricting designed to favor his Democratic-Republican party produced one district map whose distorted contours resembled a salamander. The mashup of Gerry’s name and the amphibian’s endures as an epithet for the process.
In modern gerrymandering, the political party in power still seeks to dilute the vote for its opponent party by spreading its voters over many districts – still creating district maps with bizarre shapes. But the process has also been used since the Civil Rights era to concentrate non-white voters in fewer districts, hoping to ensure election of a non-white representative for them in the state legislature.
Prison gerrymandering works in a similar way. Prisons are often found in rural, mostly white areas, while prisoners are mostly urban and non-white; so counting them where they are held effectively dilutes the voting power of their urban, non-white neighborhood back home.
As a result, a push to end prison gerrymandering has gained steamed. Legislation outlawing the practice has been adopted in 10 states. Two others – Pennsylvania and Rhode Island – have accomplished the same thing, like Montana, without passing legislation. [See: PLN, Mar. 1, 2022, online.]
The new zoning maps adopted by Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Committee (DAC) no longer count prisoners in the district where they are currently housed, but in their stated district of residence prior to their arrest. Prison Policy Initiative’s Mike Wessler said, “This decision by the Redistricting Commission gives everyone an equal voice and balances the scales, if you will, to ensure that all people have an equal voice in government.”
The state legislature has moved to codify the decision by passing Senate Bill 77. If also passed by the state House of Representatives and signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte (R), it would prevent DAC from reverting on its own to counting prisoners where they are held, rather than the districts where they lived pre-arrest.
Source: NBC News
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login