Our democracy works best when every person, regardless of what they look like, where they live, or how much money they make, has equal voice in determining the direction of our country. But for too long, our racist history of policing and mass incarceration has undermined that ideal. Compounded with our redistricting processes that have repeatedly put the interests of partisan insiders over the needs of communities, lawmakers have fundamentally and intentionally diminished the power and voice of Black and brown people in our democracy.
But here in Pennsylvania, we are finally taking steps in the right direction.
This week, the Legislative Reapportionment Commission voted 3-2 to count incarcerated people in their home districts, rather than where they are incarcerated, ending the practice of prison gerrymandering here in the commonwealth.
A real awakening is happening about how mass incarceration has devastated Black and brown communities and disenfranchised millions of people from the ballot box and representation. Beginning with Jim Crow and coming to an apex with the war on drugs that began in the ‘70s, mass incarceration has taken the lives and livelihoods of people experiencing poverty, people with disabilities, and Black and brown communities. This makes it harder, and oftentimes impossible, for these communities to make their voices heard in political discourse, even though they are often the most impacted by government policies.
Prison gerrymandering — the act of counting people for purposes of redistricting at the location of the prison instead of their home — is especially sinister. Not only are map makers silencing individual voices in government, they are in effect stealing representation from areas that are dramatically underserved while allocating that political power to whiter, more rural places that incarcerated people often have no connection to.
Many Pennsylvanians are unaware of how incarcerated populations impact elections. Since people in prison for felony convictions cannot vote, you might think they do not have an impact at all. However, the opposite is true. When a voting district includes a prison population, the district typically contains fewer voters and so fewer votes are needed to elect its officials.
That means communities where prisons are built, which are predominantly white and rural, get an outsized say in Congress and in state legislatures at the expense of metropolitan areas and nonwhite communities. This can produce election results that are unfair and rob communities of important resources and representation.
Pennsylvania has been part of this insidious cycle for much too long. Pennsylvania has approximately 96,000 incarcerated individuals, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. That works out to about 725 people out of every 100,000 (using 2010 Census numbers) — a higher rate of incarceration than the United States as a whole.
A 2018 study by Villanova professors found that the decision to count incarcerated people where they were incarcerated in the last redistricting cycle resulted in serous inequities among districts. In redistricting, each district must be substantially equal in population. If the 2010 maps had counted incarcerated people in their home districts rather than where they were incarcerated, four state House districts would have been too small to meet the population threshold for a district — and four districts would have included too many people in a single district. This meant that over 200,000 people were not fairly represented for at least the last decade in Pennsylvania.
Earlier this month, the Census Bureau released a robust picture of how Black, Latinx, and Asian communities are driving our nation’s population growth. Our nation is becoming more diverse. Much of that growth comes from cities. And Pennsylvania follows that trend.
The good news is many states are taking action to ensure rural, more white voting districts are not being artificially inflated. And, due to the hard work and tireless advocacy of champions like Minority Leader Rep. Joanna McClinton, the support of leaders like Minority Leader Sen. Jay Costa, and the thoughtful analysis of Legislative Reappointment Commission chair Mark Nordenberg, Pennsylvania has just become the latest state to ensure more equitable representation for incarcerated people.
Of course, the work is not done. The LRC, the Bureau of Prisons, and data scientists need to work together to ensure that incarcerated folks are reallocated to their home communities. Advocates and allies need to continue to fight to apply the same reallocation to congressional districts. And the General Assembly should pass legislation to write these important changes into law for future redistricting processes.
But this is a monumental first step — one of many, we hope — toward a more equitable and representative democracy. Together we can ensure that our democracy is truly by, for, and of We the People.
Keshia Morris Desir is census and mass incarceration project manager at Common Cause.