Representing prisoners, and others

There’s a fascinating article a week ago in the New Republic on “prison gerrymandering”: the way that representation in the United States at all levels is distorted by the disenfranchisement of prisoners and how the system responds to it.

Kiran Misra explains that while most prisoners are unable to vote, they still count for the purpose of determining the basis of representation, and the census counts them where the prison is, rather than at their previous place of residence. So districts in which prisons are located – which tend to be rural and therefore conservative – are over-represented, having few actual voters in proportion to their artificially-inflated populations.

Conversely, the places that prisoners tend to come from, which are mostly poor and urban, miss out on representation; not only can’t the prisoners vote to defend their interests, but their absence reduces the weight of the communities that they belong to.

It’s all horribly reminiscent of the way that representation worked in the era of slavery, when the slaves, despite their total lack of political rights, still counted (although at a discount) for determining how many seats the slave states were entitled to – thus enabling the white voters of the south to exercise an influence disproportionate to their numbers.

The fourteenth amendment, passed in 1868, put an end to that practice, providing that if a state disenfranchised any of its adult males then its representation would be reduced accordingly. (In the Jim Crow period the southern states adopted various subterfuges to get around it.) But an exception in the text was made for those guilty of “participation in rebellion, or other crime,” allowing states to deny the vote not just to former Confederates, but to prisoners in general.

Misra describes efforts in some states to end the “gerrymander” by counting prisoners in their home districts (something states can do for themselves even if the census bureau fails to act). Simply allowing prisoners to vote, of course, would be more effective [link added], but is a more difficult move to sell politically.

Australia had some of this discussion about 15 years ago, when the Howard government moved to disenfranchise, first, in 2004, prisoners serving sentences of three years or more, and then, in 2006, all prisoners regardless of their sentence. In 2007 the High Court ruled the second of those provisions invalid, but the three-year rule remains in place.

But in Australia there is no prison gerrymander: as I explained back in 2005, prisoners enrol for their usual place of residence, not for the location of the prison. And because we do not imprison people at anything like the same rate as the US, the distortion involved either way would be much smaller in any case.

As it happens, Australia is currently in the process of revising some of its electoral representation. As we’ve noted before, while representation is apportioned between states on the basis of population, as in the US, boundaries within each state are drawn on the basis of numbers of enrolled voters, not population.

The most recent determination of each state’s entitlement resulted in Western Australia losing a seat and Victoria gaining one, so federal boundaries are being redistributed in those states accordingly. Draft boundaries were published last month (see the Victorian ones here and Western Australian here), and objections to them close this Friday, 16 April. At the same time, there is also a regular redistribution of state electoral boundaries happening in Victoria.

None of these amount to good news for the Coalition parties. Areas of high population growth tend to be Labor voting, so redistributions usually shift things in Labor’s favor. The seat proposed for abolition in Western Australia (Stirling) is Liberal-held, and the new seat in Victoria (proposed to be called “Hawke”) is in safe Labor territory. Similarly, the Victorian state process is likely to produce a net gain of two seats for Labor. (You can read Antony Green’s analyses for more detail.)

Fundamentally, however, the effects are fairly small. Our electoral boundaries are all drawn by impartial commissions, and regular updating means that no single redistribution is going to have a huge impact. Although political parties sometimes obsess about them, the real threat to governments comes from the voters, not the boundary commissioners.

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