Saturday, May 13, 2006

Another Reason Republicans Love Prisons: Gerrymandering

As has been quietly discussed in America for the past few years, but never really turned into a hot-button issue, one of the accidents of the American legislative system is that prisoners, while incarcerated, are counted as "residents" of the locality where their prison is located. This, in turn, bolsters the population of the locality and offers yet another variable to be taken advantage of when it's time to gerrymander seats again.

I say, "gerrymander...again," because that's basically what happens when state legislatures reapportion voting districts every ten years. It probably isn't controversial to say that, since it just happens. The party in power in a state is naturally going to be inclined to carve districts that benefit the party in power.

Today, the New York Times had an article about the problem. The article was about how the Republican-controlled New York State Senate is skewed by perhaps as many seven seats to rural, upstate districts where prisoners are sent after committing crimes in the New York City metropolitan area. This population count shifted upstate helps Republicans maintain their edge in the Senate. Similar problems exist in other states, including, if I recall, Florida.

The paper advocated its typically overly conservative reform: why, let's just count the inmates in the location where they committed their crime!

Of course, this is such a mild improvement it's barely even worth implementing. If anything, it just gives the Democrats more opportunities to have hegemony of the state, a prospect that probably isn't that far from a reality anyway.

For those who want real reform, the solution is to get rid of this antiquated system of districting. It was a great idea in its day, but it just doesn't make sense. It requires a massive federal bureaucracy to carefully track not only population numbers, but also map population distribution.

Worst of all, the districting system only feeds the status quo. It allows legislators to craft their own seats, rather than actually get elected based on the will of the populace. Naturally, this means that legislators talking about proportional representation is pretty unlikely. It's much more fun to be guaranteed that your seat will be yours in the next election.


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