Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley today joined Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Robert Menendez (D-NJ),Patty Murray (D-WA), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Bob Casey (D-PA) to introduce the Correct the Census Count Act—legislation to end the practice of “prison gerrymandering,” which skews congressional and legislative districts by counting prisoners as residents of the location where they are incarcerated.
The Correct the Census Count Act would require the U.S. Census Bureau to list the residence of incarcerated individuals as the address of their last known residence, not the address of the prison in which they are incarcerated.
“Our democratic republic can only do justice by ‘We the People’ if we have a fair and representative census,” said Merkley. “Prison gerrymandering disproportionately magnifies the voices of some, while diminishing the voices of other Americans—especially African American and Latinx communities of color, who are disproportionately incarcerated by our criminal justice system. Every American, regardless of race, income, or zip code, deserves fair and equal representation in our government. To fully deliver on that vision, we need to reform the census and end prison gerrymandering.”“The census is critical to supporting the health and livelihood of every person in our country, and we should be working to ensure that count truly reflects our communities,” Murray said. “Ending prison gerrymandering is a positive step toward leveling the playing field in our democracy by helping ensure all of our communities are fairly and accurately represented in our government.”“It is long past time that we count incarcerated people in their home communities. In 2016, I led a letter from all Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee expressing disagreement with the Census Bureau’s proposal to keep counting incarcerated people as ‘residents’ of the places where they are confined. The Census Bureau’s current practice compounds the inequities of the criminal justice system, inequitably redistributes congressional representation, improperly allocates vital federal resources, and represents an inconsistent application of the standards applied to other populations. I am proud that Delaware has been a leader on these issues, and I will continue advocating for change,” Coons said.
Since the vast majority of incarcerated individuals cannot vote, prison gerrymandering greatly distorts the bedrock principle of “one person, one vote.” Effectively, prison gerrymandering steals representation from the communities where incarcerated individuals previously lived, and grants extra representation to communities in which prisons are located.
Under current law, the Census Bureau tabulates incarcerated individuals as residents of prison locations, rather than their last known place of residence before incarceration. Registering the location of an incarcerated individual as the prison in which they are incarcerated heavily distorts the redistricting process. This practice adversely influences our democratic process at the state and local level, in which a prison population can easily represent the majority of a legislative district.
Without reforming the way in which the Census counts incarcerated Americans, states are freely able to dilute the voting power of communities disproportionately impacted by high rates of incarceration—often low-income communities of color that already face other forms of disenfranchisement. This has the potential of further allowing powerful interests to choose their own voters rather than voters choosing their representatives.
The practice of prison gerrymandering undermines the principle of equal and fair representation, and breaks up communities during the redistricting process. TheCorrect the Census Count Act would finally ensure that all communities can be fully represented and fairly counted, regardless of whether or not an individual from that community is incarcerated.
The Correct the Census Count Act has also been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO-1), and is cosponsored by 29 members of the House. This legislation is endorsed by the Sentencing Project, Common Cause, Prison Policy Initiative, National Urban League, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, and the NAACP.
The full text of the Correct the Census Count Act can be found here.