Here’s an interesting twist on the argument over whether or not to count nonresident military personnel and their dependents for purposes of political redistricting.
It turns out many of the very same arguments are being made in other parts of the country about whether or not prisoners should be counted as residents of the districts in which they are incarcerated, even though virtually all are from somewhere else and none vote.
The result of counting relatively large numbers of people in this situation is a distortion of political power and influence in state legislatures and city governments as the remaining voters have proportionally more political clout than voters in more typical electoral districts.
Wagner has a recent article in the William Mitchell Law Review which provides a good overview of the issue (“Breaking the Census: Redistricting in an Era of Mass Incarceration”).
When these prison counts are used in the redistricting context, the impact on state legislative districts is dramatic, for example:
• Seven New York state senate districts drawn after the 2000 Census met minimum population requirements only because they use prison populations as padding.
• In Maryland, one state house district in western Maryland drawn after the 2000 Census drew 18% of its population from a large prison complex.19 As a result, every four voting residents in this district were granted as much political influence as five residents elsewhere.
The policy and racial justice implications are severe as well, for example:
• Virtually all—98%—of New York state’s prison cells were located in state senate districts that are disproportionately White, diluting the votes of African-American and Latino voters. Similarly, in Connecticut, 75% of the state’s prison cells are in state house districts that were disproportionately White.
• Of the seven New York senate districts discussed above, four of the senators sat on the powerful Codes Committee where they opposed reforming the state’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws that boosted the state’s prison population. The inflated populations of these senators’ districts gave them little incentive to consider or pursue policies that might reduce the numbers of people sent to prison or the length of time they spend there. One of them, Republican New York state Senator Dale Volker, boasted that he was glad that the almost 9,000 people confined in his district cannot vote because ‘“they would never vote for me.”’
The inclusion of military personnel who do not opt to become Hawaii residents and are therefore not eligible to vote in the state would have the same impact on electoral districts. Voters in the districts with substantial military populations would garner much more clout than other voters.
Wagner blames policies of the U.S. Senate, and underscores the point that federal law does not require use of the census total population count as the sole basis for state and local reapportionment.