The NCSL Blog

11

By Drew Marvel

Every 10 years, states set out to redraw their representative districts using population data from the federal census—which has a direct impact on political representation.

us census bureau logoFor most, this process is simple: People are counted as residents in the census block where they live. For others, however, this process is not so clear cut.

The longstanding practice of the U.S. Census Bureau has been to count incarcerated people as residents of the census block in which their correctional facility is located. Given that most prisoners lack the ability to vote, districts with correctional facilities will, therefore, contain the same total population as other districts in the state but will contain fewer eligible voters.

In effect, this means elected representatives of districts with prisons will represent fewer voters than their counterparts from districts that don’t house prisons. Recently, states and activists have begun to take note of these representational impacts and have advocated for change.

In the past decade, six states have modified their redistricting procedures to address these concerns; two of these—New York and Maryland—used this procedure for the 2010 redistricting cycle.

While states vary in their specific treatment of state versus federal inmates and reallocation procedures employed, and whether they apply to only legislative or congressional districts or both, there are a few general commonalities. For one, these six states identify the last known residences prior to incarceration, when possible, and count those people back home rather than at their prison’s address. Another common change is to simply not include prisoners from out of state when redistricting.

A closer look:

California: Enacted 2012; implemented 2020

  • State inmates: In-state residents prior to incarceration are counted at their last known residence.
  • Federal inmates: Excluded from all district populations.

Delaware: Enacted 2010; implemented 2020

  • State inmates: In-state residents prior to incarceration are counted at their last known residence.
  • Federal inmates: In-state residents prior to incarceration are counted at their last known residence.

Maryland (legislative; congressional): Enacted 2010; implemented 2010

  • State inmates: In-state residents prior to incarceration are counted at their last known residence.
  • Federal inmates: In-state residents prior to incarceration are counted at their last known residence.

Nevada: Enacted 2019; implemented 2019

  • State inmates: In-state residents prior to incarceration are counted at their last known residence.
  • Federal inmates: Not addressed.

New York: Enacted 2019; implemented 2010

  • State inmates: In-state residents prior to incarceration are counted at their last known residence.
  • Federal inmates: In-state residents prior to incarceration are counted at their last known residence.

Washington: Enacted 2019; implemented 2019

  • State inmates: In-state residents prior to incarceration are counted at their last known residence.
  • Federal inmates: Nt addressed.

For more information on these states’ policies and the costs and benefits of the different allocation practices, visit NCSL’s Reallocating Prisoners for Redistricting webpage.

Drew Marvel is a student at William and Mary’s Law School, and legal intern with NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.