Thursday, August 6, 2009

The way we count stuff matters

NYU Law professor Anthony Thompson points out an interesting quirk in the way the census works: prison inmates are counted as living in the same county as their prision, even if they will be released within a year or two. Why does this matter? It has a direct impact on how federal and state congressional districts are drawn and how government money is channeled:
"...the district of State Senator Elizabeth O'C. Little, a Republican in upstate New York, has 13 prisons, adding approximately 13,500 incarcerated "residents." Without the inmate population, Ms. Little would face an uncertain future. Her district would probably have to be redrawn because it wouldn't have enough residents to justify a Senate seat.

The residence rule raises two fundamental issues:

First, inmates in nearly all states aren't allowed to vote, yet their presence affects electoral representation in places where they do not live permanently.

Second, a disproportionate number of state prison inmates are from urban areas. Most state prisons, however, are in rural areas. As a result, resources and electoral authority are transferred from inner cities to rural jurisdictions.

The effects are plain to see. Cities lose out on funds that could be used both for crime prevention and prisoner rehabilitation; rural areas do their best to thwart reform because they don't want to lose the benefits that prisons confer on them."
As I've written before, most American live in what the Census classifies as urban areas. So the residence rule will skew public funds in an inefficient and non-representative way.

Conducting a census presents myriad conceptual issues, and no strategy is perfect. But there's something fundmentally wrong with counting incarcerated citizens who are legally barred from voting towards a district's population total. This will ultimately give voters in those districts disproportionate voting power and will result in policy choices that do not reflect the will of the majority.

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