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Democratic distortion
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 01/26/2009

Census The next United States Census is just one year and a month away, and the massive questionnaire-by-mail campaign will have weighty outcomes for every citizen. Census data are used to distribute congressional seats to states and to make decisions about what community services to provide. Not to mention the results will determine how $300 billion in federal funds is distributed to local, state and tribal governments.

While the 2010 Census will take just a few minutes of most people’s time, for Peter Wagner, the event symbolizes the culmination of a decade of work and research. Wagner is leading a national campaign to change the way the U.S. Census Bureau counts prison inmates.

“Democracy in the abstract is a very good idea, but we come to better decisions when everyone is weighted equally on a moral plane,” he says.

Wagner, the founder of Prisoners of the Census, a research project that documents how the Census counts inmates and the effect the policy has on democratic processes. The Census Bureau counts people in prison as if they were residents of the communities where they are incarcerated, even though they remain legal residents of the places they lived prior to incarceration. As a result, the population count in communities with large prisons is inflated, and so is the political power.

“The census controls how districts are drawn, it controls their destiny and political power,” Wagner explains. “The whole fundamental concept of government is based on districts. Every group of people should have the same access to government regardless of where they live and whether or not there’s a large prison in their town.”

Prisoners of the Census started off as a paper Wagner wrote for law school in 2000. The law student and his friends were interested in the greater impact prisons were making on society.

“I was skeptical at first,” Wagner admits. “I had heard a little about the problem with inmates and the Census and I just thought there can’t possibly be enough people transferred from point A to point B to affect democracy. But it ended up being bigger than anyone had thought.”

The group’s 2002 report , “Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York” was the first district-by-district analysis of the impact of the prison miscount on state legislative redistricting. In the years since, the project has extended its New York research to examine Census data and democratic distortion in more than 11 states and 200 counties around the country. A county in Iowa recently gained national recognition when the New York Times profiled concerns of so-called “prison-based gerrymandering.”

“In Anamosa, Iowa, 96 percent of their population was prisoners due to the large prison in the town,” Wagner explains. “What this does is give Anamosa undue influence in the state senate because of the prison. That is an unconstitutional benefit to the residents of Anamosa.” “And it’s a huge harm in that it complete distorts democracy so that a city with 58 people will have as much say as a city with 1,400 people,” he adds. “That’s why this issue is so important. So there’s something in this reform for everybody.”

The ideal solution Prisoners of the Census proposes is for the Census Bureau to count inmates at the home address where they lived prior to incarceration.

“They’re about to set in stone the procedure for how people will be counted in the 2010 census,” he explains. “We need to start taking steps so in the future they can figure out how to count prisoners at their home address.” This isn’t a change Wagner expects the Bureau to make by the 2010 Census, but he suggests an interim reform that will help them get there sooner rather than later.

“We want states and counties to be allowed to choose to redistrict without prison populations,” he explains. The National Research Council of the National Academies, the editorial board of the New York Times and other groups have endorsed this interim solution. Several states currently have pending legislation that will require the states to use prisoners’ home addresses in dividing up the legislative districts.

“We’ve established it’s legally necessary, we’ve established it’s demographically necessary, and we’ve established that it’s possible and it’s desirable,” Wagner remarks. “The big question is can we overcome bureaucratic inertia?”

In the last nine years, the Prisoners of the Census movement has gained more and more momentum. There have been 11 New York Times editorials about the issue, and Wagner’s even won the endorsement of the Census Bureau’s own technical advisors.

“This is their top demographers telling how people should be counted and where,” he says.

Prisoners of the Census will soon release reports examining the census and corrections systems in California and Illinois. Even with all the progress that’s been made, there’s still much left to be done.

“A small group of people should not be allowed to dominate government,” he says, “especially just because the Census Bureau counted a large prison there.”


  1. pamela45 on 01/09/2010:

    Ok. these people are in prison for committing crimes. but i know for a fact. that alot of them are in prison for making wrong decisions in their life. but. in my opinion. these are still human beings. they have families that need them. families that miss them and love them. their human beings. and as a mother of a son in anamosa iowa state prison. my son messed up. he made a choice. to keep the girl he loved happy. she always threatened to leave him because he couldnt afford to buy the things she wanted. so he did a really dumb thing. he just loved her to much in my opinion. and now that hes in prison for doing the dumbest thing to keep this girl. she had no problem spending the money from the crime he committed. but when the money was gone. he went and did it again and got arressted. she has not once gone to see him or even written a letter. in my opinion. hes guilty of loving that greedy young girl to much. he didnt want her to leave him. like she has many times before. he loved her. and now i hate her. she ruined my son. im scared when he gets out. he ll never trust or love again. people in prison are human beings.

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