Activists urged state legislators Wednesday to ignore U.S. Census data when redrawing districts for state house and senate seats. The problem, they say, is that the census counts prisoners as residents of districts that house correctional facilities, while state law requires that prisoners vote by absentee ballot from their home address.
“A basic principle of our democracy is one person, one vote. That political power is distributed fairly on the basis of population. That is not happening here,” Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut, said. While it is too late to fix how census data is collected, she said that it’s not too late for the state to adjust that data before redistricting.
LaResse Harvey, policy director for A Better Way Foundation, said that 60 percent of the prison population serves a sentence of less than three years, while the census is done every 10 years. This means that when prisoners are released back to their home districts, their districts’ representation is diluted in comparison to those districts with prisons.
Peter Wagner, executive director of Mass.-based Prison Policy Initiative, said that the more than 18,000 people incarcerated in the state almost constitute a legislative district. It turns out that there are enough people incarcerated in Connecticut to “break” the Democratic process, Wagner said.
“So what happens when you pad a legislative district with prisoners? It gives that district extra representation at the expense of every other district in the state that does not have prisons,” Wagner said.
The state’s use of unadjusted census data makes your vote count more if you live in a district with a prison, Wagner said, adding, “If you don’t, your vote is worth less.”
A bill that among other things would have required the use of census data adjusted for prison population, died in committee this session. Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said he raised similar legislation in a prior session.
“Even if we can’t say where they are going back to, we know one thing: they’re not going back to the places where they are housed right now. They’re not going back to Cheshire; they’re not going back to Enfield. Those communities don’t want these people.
“We know which communities in this state house the people who are filling up the prisons,” Holder-Winfield said. “We know which communities lose out. They’re the same communities that have always lost out.”
Maryland’s governor signed a bill into law on Monday making that state the first in the nation to require that prisoners be counted at home for legislative redistricting.
Activists also voiced their support for a bill that would require state employers to make a conditional offer of employment before doing a criminal background check. The job offer could then be revoked but the specific reasoning must be in writing and mailed to the job applicant.
Many also spoke in favor of amending the bill to “ban the box,” referring to the box on job applications that asks if a person has been convicted of a felony. Measures banning the box already have been adopted in Norwich, New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport. The bill is currently on the Senate calendar and could be taken up for a vote at anytime.