July 2011, Week 4


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Mon, 25 Jul 2011 01:54:38 -0400
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Wisconsin Sees Dramatic Prison-Based Gerrymandering in 
New State, County, City Districts
by Peter Wagner
Prisoners of the Census
July 18, 2011

The Wisconsin legislature is rushing through a
redistricting plan so they can lock in the maps before
the scheduled recall elections can change who has the
power to draw district lines. In that rush, prison-based
gerrymandering is poised to have an even greater impact
on state, county and municipal districts than it did a
decade ago.

The Census Bureau counts Wisconsin prisoners as if they
were residents of the communities where they are
incarcerated, even though they can't vote and remain
legal residents of the places they lived prior to
incarceration. Crediting thousands of people to other
communities has staggering implications for Wisconsin's
democracy, which uses the Census to apportion political
power on the basis of equally-sized state and county
legislative districts.

Wisconsin's 53rd Assembly district has the highest
concentration of prisons in the state. The 53rd District
claims 5,583 incarcerated people as residents of the
district, even though state law says that incarcerated
people remain residents of their homes. All districts
send some people to prison, although some districts send
more than others. But not all districts have prisons,
and concentrating 23,000 prisoners in a handful of
districts enhances the weight of a vote cast in those
districts and dilutes all votes cast elsewhere.

In Wisconsin, this impact is largest in District 53,
where without using prison populations as padding, the
district would be 10% below the required size. This
gives every 90 residents of the 53rd district the same
influence as 100 residents of any other district in the

If that seems insignificant, consider that the Supreme
Court allows districts to have populations that are 5%
too large or small if the state can protect some other
legitimate state interest by doing so. The federal
judges who have for decades drawn Wisconsin's state
legislative districts have had an even higher standard,
allowing only a 1% deviation from strict population
equality. The Republican majority of the legislature
which drew the new districts took an even higher
standard in the Assembly, drawing districts that are, by
Census counts, no more than 0.4% too large or small.

The state's efforts to carefully draw districts that
give each district the same population and the same
political influence is clearly overshadowed by the
decision to use the Census Bureau's data that credited
incarcerated people to the wrong location when drawing
districts, and created one of the most distorted state
legislative districts in the county. The systematic bias
introduced by drawing districts based on Census Bureau
prison counts becomes clear when you look in detail at
District 53:

District 53 purports to have a large African-American
population, larger than 74 other districts. But of the
2,784 African-Americans in the district, all but 590 are
incarcerated. The day the people incarcerated in the
district are allowed to vote again, they will be on a
bus, heading back to their home district. The 53rd
District is claiming populations that are not a part of
this district and never will be.

The state Assembly is not the only part of Wisconsin to
raise the ante on prison-based gerrymandering and draw
districts more distorted than they did a decade ago. In
our previous research, we found some of the most
dramatic examples of prison-based gerrymandering in the
country in Wisconsin cities and counties. With two
notable exceptions, counties appear to have been unable
or unwilling to find a solution to competing state laws
that indirectly require them to use the unadjusted
Census numbers and engage in prison-based

The two exceptions are Dodge County, and the City of
Waupun. These communities did something clever: they
split each large prison between 2 or 3 neighboring
districts. Those districts still get credited with an
incarcerated population that actually resides somewhere
else, but the size of the vote enhancement in any
individual district is smaller. And by extension, this
reduces the extent to which votes are diluted in other
Dodge County or City of Waupun districts.

With Dodge County and the City of Waupun finding
solutions, albeit partial ones, the mantle for the most
dramatic examples of prison-based gerrymandering is
likely going to fall to Chippewa, Juneau, and Waushara
counties, all of which saw new prisons built or expanded
over the last decade, and all of which appear to be
drawing individual county districts that are more than
50% incarcerated. In each of these counties, if you live
next to the prisons, you'll get twice the influence over
the future of our county as residents who live
elsewhere. That's not fair. It likely violates the
federal constitution's guarantee of equal
representation, and it certainly doesn't make any sense.

We concede - when fairness and logic aren't enough to
avoid prison-based gerrymandering - that it is
technically possible to draw a district that is half
incarcerated. One town in Iowa had a district that was
96% incarcerated, until citizens intervened. So what are
we watching for at the Prison Policy Initiative
headquarters? We're waiting to see how the cities of New
Lisbon and Stanley draw their city districts. There,
unless they take action, they'll be faced with drawing
districts that are more than 100% incarcerated. This
impossibility could produce some of the most dramatic
examples of prison-based gerrymandering in the country.
Will those cities follow the state legislature's blind
rush into prison-based gerrymandering and end up drawing
one or more City Council districts with no voters? Stay


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