Similar to the three-fifths compromise, there are historical roots for voting districts favoring rural populations, which were increasingly white, that were politically motivated. Once there were more residents in cities, district boundaries were not re-drawn, effectively giving people in rural areas more districts per voter than their urban counterparts had. The one person, one vote ruling in 1962, held that each jurisdiction was to have close to the same number of people. Thus, the Census undercounting in urban areas effectively maintained the distribution of power, and this distribution of power was intricately bound with race. This practice of attaching outcomes and opportunities to legally established definitions of race and racial identity (i.e., enslavement, jim crow, segregation, etc.) remains a reality even today. Except when those practices have the possibility of swinging the balance of power. Nowhere is that illustrated more clearly than in the process of prison gerrymandering.

The Census procedures calls for counting people according to where they reside most often and where they live. This has meant that barring adjusted state policies imprisoned U.S. residents are counted at their place of imprisonment, not in the counties where they originated and where for many the families that continue to support them live. 

With increased incarceration rates, the growth of prisons in rural America over the last 40 years, and the fact that the Census counts incarcerated persons as residing where they are incarcerated rather than being counted as residents where they were convicted, we have seen a significant decline in both political and financial power in Black communities. The urban undercounting, coupled with the rural overcounting skews population counts, thereby affecting federal benefits as well as potential shifts in congressional power that can result from this mode of counting. 

Many in our community do not realize that several hundred dollars in federal funds are received for every person counted under the Census. Therefore, a thousand incarcerated people would result in several hundred thousand dollars not going to communities from which they come and where their families continue to reside but rather to the communities whose livelihoods are dependent upon their incarceration. Additionally, congressional districts are realigned as a result of the Census bureau counting incarcerated people as residents of the county in which they are incarcerated, producing greater representation for the communities with a significant stake in keeping the numbers of imprisoned people high. A significant political impact indeed. 

With most prisons located in less densely populated rural areas, counting the imprisoned population according to their prison location increases the political clout of those rural areas. One of the concerns with counting incarcerated persons according to the site of the prison instead of their home address is that the political clout rural areas with prisons gain is disproportionate to the number of voting members of the community.

For nearly two decades, the national movement for ending prison gerrymandering has been growing. Of central concern for those opposed to counting the incarcerated population in the location they are incarcerated is real inflation of political influence in rural areas as a result of the presence of incarcerated persons, a population that has been excluded from participating in society, and prohibited from civic participation. While some reflect on the discrimination evident in the three-fifths clause to oppose the exclusion of imprisoned people, supporters argue that to count incarcerated persons who, like felons, are unable to vote, is counterproductive.

To learn more, visit the links below and get involved in their local organizations fighting prison gerrymandering.

FiveThirtyEight – The Gerrymandering Project 

Prison Policy Initiative – Prison Gerrymandering Project 

Take the Census. Be Counted. Check Black!