The Senate acted Wednesday to count most incarcerated people as members of the voting districts where they lived before they were locked up, passing with a nearly-unanimous vote a change that had been controversial for more than a decade.
The U.S. Census counts people in prisons as part of the towns where the correctional facility is located. Under current law, Connecticut and most other states maintain that location when they redraw the lines of voting districts to insure each has equal representation. The bill adjusts the population data to count them in the communities where they lived prior to incarceration.
Lawmakers sent the bill to the House for consideration after amending it to require that inmates who are in prison without the chance of release, will continue to be counted in the location of the correctional facility.
The Senate’s action puts the bill an important step closer to passage before the legislature’s Reapportionment Committee maps the lines of Connecticut’s voting districts as part of a once-a-decade process required this year as a result of the 2020 Census.
Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat and longtime proponent of the change, said it was a matter of fairness. Winfield said he routinely spends time addressing a “deluge” of concerns from incarcerated people who came from New Haven but are not technically counted among his constituents. He said that reduces the attention he can devote to those who are counted there.
“We talk about the concept of one person, one vote … this policy brings us closer to that concept,” he said. “If you don’t want them when they come out, you shouldn’t have them when they’re in. Let’s not act like the communities we’re talking about really want these people to be incorporated into their community.”
Some proponents of changing the law call the current policy “prison gerrymandering,” saying it systematically reduces the political influence of the largely Black and brown cities where many incarcerated people are from and boosts the representation of more rural towns where prisons are often located.
“It dilutes the communities where people who are incarcerated truly come from,” Sen. Mae Flexer, a Killingly Democrat who is co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said. “It’s simply wrong and it’s racially unjust. Meaningful representation is being denied.”
The bill’s lone opponent was Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican who reported that his district included more than 3,600 prison inmates. He said the bill put “forward somewhat of a fantasy” and sought to defy the physical reality of where incarcerated people are located.
“These inmates reside in these facilities. Their physical bodies reside there. This is where they primarily eat and sleep. This is where they’ve been sentenced,” he said. “It’s somewhat of ‘make believe’ that on paper we’re going to have these human beings counted one place whereas physically, three-dimensionally, their wants and needs and infrastructure … is related to a different geographical area.”
Winfield pushed back on Kissel’s arguments.
“These aren’t bodies, these are human beings and sometimes we forget when we speak, we use language that dissociates the human being from those bodies that we’re talking about. There’s a soul there. There’s a mind there,” he said.
After a brief parliamentary argument about a proposed amendment, which was ruled out of order by Democrats, every other Republican joined in supporting the measure. Sen. Rob Sampson, a Wolcott Republican who opposed the bill in committee, supported it after helping to negotiate the change regarding people serving life sentences.
Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said he was struck by Winfield’s comments earlier in the debate.
“Home means something to everyone,” he said. “It is because of that, that I will stand in support of this legislation.”
The bill will now go to the House, where Speaker Matt Ritter said last week he intends to raise it for a vote.