Prison Gerrymandering Gives White, Rural Areas An Unfair Political Advantage

person placing a ballot in a box
Zain Murdock
September 7, 2023

Gerrymandering is drawing electoral districts to give one political party an advantage over another. Many believe it’s undemocratic, unjust, and unconstitutional. But here’s one form of gerrymandering established by the U.S. Census Bureau: prison gerrymandering.

The Census counts non-voting incarcerated populations as “living” in the white, rural areas where they’re imprisoned, and not the urban, diverse areas where they last lived and call home. As a result those rural areas where prisons get built end up boasting unfairly high populations. 

Here’s how it works.

In 2005, Anamosa, Iowa, had four 1,400-person city council wards. But Ward Two included a state prison. So although they counted about 1,400 residents, only 58 could vote. Those 58 had 25 times more voting power than residents of other wards. 

This resulted in a city council member getting elected with only two write-in Ward Two votes.

By 2023, just 11 states restricted or banned prison gerrymandering. And because Black people are overrepresented in the incarcerated population, our communities end up with less political power. In the 2020 Census, that meant 1.4 million incarcerated people overall. 

There’s still time for 2030 to be different.

The prison system not only strips incarcerated people of voting power, but gives that power away. What other power gets stolen from us? And, as we challenge anti-Black systems, how do you think power should be redistributed?

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