Common Cause Urges Census Bureau to Count Prisoners in Home Localities, Not Prisons

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  • Scott Swenson, Dale Eisman
Agency's Plan Is Outdated and Would Violate 'One Person, One Vote' Requirement

The Census Bureau is preparing to count nearly 2 million Americans as residents of localities where they are imprisoned rather than at their homes, continuing an outdated practice that results in constitutional violations of “one person, one vote” requirements, Common Cause warned today.

“If implemented in 2020, the proposed residence guidelines the Census Bureau published today will produce an inaccurate count and invite legal challenges in states,” said Allegra Chapman, Common Cause’s director of voting and elections. “The Bureau should reconsider and amend its plan so that prisoners are counted in their home localities.”

Chapman said counting prisoners as residents of the communities where they’re incarcerated gives extra representation to those localities and dilutes the representation of everyone else. In localities housing major prisons, some city and county council or state legislative districts could end up with half or more of their “residents” as inmates, who of course are unable to vote, she noted.

“Because Latinos and African-Americans are disproportionally incarcerated, this plan will be especially bad for equal representation of communities of color,” Chapman added.  “In effect, a lot of urban areas and communities of color will lose head counts.  That’s both illogical and unjust.”

In Rhode Island, for example, the majority of incarcerated persons spend less than 100 days in correctional facilities.  Counting these individuals at a place where they don’t “eat and sleep most of the time” counters the Bureau’s own guidelines, Chapman said.

The Bureau’s plan continues a longstanding counting policy; census officials invited public comments on the practice last year but the plan announced today ignores the sentiments of 96 percent of the people who responded to that invitation and urged that prisoners be counted in their home localities, Chapman noted.

Common Cause leaders in Washington, D.C. and in Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maryland, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin, were among those writing to the Census Bureau in support of counting the prisoners in their home localities.

“We appreciate the Bureau’s willingness to provide states which request it with an amended count that reallocates inmates to their home addresses, Chapman said. “And we hope states will take advantage of that offer to provide more equal representation within their boundaries. But by offering to provide an alternative count, the Bureau is acknowledging that its preferred counting plan doesn’t treat everyone equally.”