One person, 4/5 of a vote?

During the opening ceremony for “Women’s History Month,” our President stated that “[T]he story of America over the past 200 years — past 233 years is one of laws becoming more just, of a people becoming more equal, of a union being perfected.” Nothing is quite as important to the perfecting of our democracy as the principle of “One Person, One Vote.”

The average size of a congressional district based on the Census 2000 apportionment population is 646,952. It has been argued that even a variation greater than 1% can have profound consequences for our democracy.

Under the Constitution, a state’s population determines the number of representative seats apportioned to it. The U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark decision Baker v. Carr (1962) ruled “unequal districts violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution.” Since this decision, reasonable balance has been restored in congressional districts.

However, in addition to partisan gerrymandering there exists a form of gerrymandering less known, though no less corrosive, to the electorate which is convict gerrymandering. In the state of Illinois, for instance, we have approximately 45,000 prisoners incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections; about 26,000 are from Cook County yet serving their time in downstate prisons.

The majority of legislative districts in Illinois with prisons have opted to count prisoners incarcerated within their districts as residents for census purposes; only a few districts with prisoners do not. It has been ruled by the federal courts that prisoners are not residents of the districts where they serve their time, yet some states are allowing the practice of convict gerrymandering to take place. This unfair apportionment is of particular significance to those districts within a state that do not have a population of prisoners to count.

It is unfair because it dilutes the vote of districts that do not have convicts to count: for instance, in an offending state legislative district, prisoners could represent 20% of its people, and if they are counted as residents, every four actual residents of the district counting prisoners has the same voting clout as five residents in an appropriately apportioned district with no prisoners to count, completely subverting the principle of “One Person, One Vote.” In the context of the vote, this diminishes the political potency of residents in districts without prisoners.

Prisoners cannot vote while incarcerated in the state of Illinois, but the political power they bring via apportionment to districts where prisons exist is considerable. The pre-arrest districts where prisoners originally came from also experience a structural disparity by having their numbers reduced.

The debate brewing in the media and the Illinois State House has been flawed and misleading as downstate politicians have called the challenge to convict gerrymandering a “money grab” orchestrated by Chicago politicians to increase revenue and resources in their home district. In fact, it is the State, not the City that chooses how they will use apportionment figures in the distribution of resources, if at all. Federal money is distributed to the states in the form of block grants and not parsed to particular districts. So what should the next steps be?

The U.S. Census Bureau is requiring for 2010 that prisoners counted as part of this non-resident population be identified creating an opportunity for states to resolve this antidemocratic practice. In the General Assembly, there is currently a bill (HB 4650), sponsored by Rep. LaShawn Ford, that if passed would address this skewed redistricting by March 2011.

This issue is a question of fair representation and would curb vote dilution for communities that have high populations of people incarcerated in prison as well as districts that have no prisons, thus no prisoners to count. The downstate opposition to HB 4650 has raised their potential loss of resources as their greatest concern, but as previously stated, resources are a moot issue because the federal government does not disperse resources to districts but rather to the states in block grants. It’s about equality in representation: Prison districts should take their finger off the scale and return parity to our districts and fairness to our Government.

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