On April 12, Maryland became the first state in the country to count incarcerated people as residents of their hometowns, rather than as residents of the place where they are imprisoned, for the purposes of legislative districting. The passage of the No Representation Without Population Act ends prison-based gerrymandering, which falsely inflates the political power of districts with prisons, due to the U.S. Census’s practice of counting incarcerated populations as residents of the prison.
Incarcerated populations have the potential to skew representation significantly because prisons tend to be located in sparsely populated rural areas. For example, in one Western Maryland legislative district, 18 percent of the population is comprised of prisoners. This means that every group of four residents in this district has as much political influence as five residents anywhere else in the state.
It is important to note that the new redistricting does not affect the distribution of any funding based on census data, nor does it weaken the economic benefits associated with prisons. Correcting this power imbalance is not the urban-versus-rural issue as it is sometimes portrayed, but rather a crucial step in the fight for electoral equality and fair representation.
The problem also affects representation on the county level. In Somerset County, where inmates of a large prison represent 64 percent of the 1st County Commission District, the imbalance was even more egregious. District voters there had 2.7 times as much weight in redistricting as voters anywhere else in the county. Moreover, counting prison inmates as district "residents" has allowed the county to put off indefinitely creating an effective African-American majority district stemming from a vote dilution lawsuit settled in the 1980s. To this day, no black official has been elected to public office there.
With the passage of the No Representation Without Population Act, we hope a true black-majority district in Somerset County will finally be able to elect an African-American candidate to public office.
Maryland came closer to realizing the promise of one person, one vote with enactment of this legislation. We hope the rest of the country will soon follow our lead and end prison-based gerrymandering.