Home > Campaign for Stronger Democracy, Civil Rights, Electoral Reform & Voting Rights > Prison-based gerrymandering and released felons’ voting rights

Prison-based gerrymandering and released felons’ voting rights

June 25, 2012

Image via Democracy North Carolina’s ex-felon outreach program

Two bits of news came across today that involve the rights of people who are currently incarcerated, and those who have recently been released from prison.

First, the Supreme Court today upheld a Maryland statute that prohibited prison based gerrymandering when the state legislature and local units of government perform redistricting. Often when new districts are being drawn, prison populations are counted where the prisons are located, and because prisoners do not have the right to vote in most states, eligible voters in areas with prisons have additional voting power. An example from Prisoners of the Census:

In Texas, one rural district’s population is almost 12% prisoners. Eighty-eight residents from that district, then, are represented in the State House as if they were 100 residents from urban Houston or Dallas.

Maryland’s “No Representation Without Population Act” requires prisoners to be counted at their last home address for redistricting purposes, and not at the location of the prison, which prevents quirks like the Texas example from happening in the Old Line State. The Supreme Court did not issue a written opinion, and merely upheld a lower court ruling declaring the law constitutional. Brenda Wright, Vice President for Legal Strategies at Demos said:

The Supreme Court’s ruling is a huge victory for the national campaign to end prison-based gerrymandering.  This decision sets an important precedent that will encourage other states to reform their redistricting laws and end the distortion in fair representation caused by treating incarcerated persons as residents of prisons.

[The website Prisoners of the Census has more information on prison-based gerrymandering, and the Demos Policy Shop blog has more on this case]

Though the ideal of “one person one vote” has been upheld by the Court in the case of prison based gerrymandering, those who have been recently released from prison frequently face an uphill battle in regaining the right to cast a ballot.

A new report from the Associated Press shows that Iowa is one of the most difficult states for ex-felons to regain their voting rights. Of 8,000 felons who have been released in Iowa, fewer than twelve have been able to regain the right to vote. Iowa’s restrictions run against the tide, as now 38 states automatically restore felon voting rights once they complete their sentences. The ACLU has an interesting map showing state-by-state felon disenfranchisement laws.

From the AP, via Huffington Post:

“Iowa is in a dwindling minority of extremely restrictive states,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a national group that advocates for policies to make it easier for felons to vote. For felons, Branstad is “making your right to vote contingent on your financial abilities.”

The trend in the U.S. since 1996 has been to expand felon voting rights and make it easier to have them restored, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Iowa has made their process more restrictive, other states have taken strides to restore the right to vote for felons who have been released. At the same time, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the prison based gerrymandering case only applies to Maryland, and other states still count prisoners at the location of penitentiaries. Neither is a complete victory nor a complete defeat, but they show conflicting directions in terms of felon rights and representation.