Thank you, Members of the Commission, for providing the opportunity to provide testimony here today. My name is Sarah Walker and I am the Chief Operating Officer of 180 Degrees, Inc. and co-founder of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition.
I am also a member of the Board of the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based non-partisan, non-profit center which for the last decade has been the leading organization studying how the U.S. Census counts people in prison and working to quantify the policy and legal implications flowing from those technical decisions. The issue of prison-based gerrymandering is also on the Second Chance Coalition’s Legislative Policy Agenda, and we supported the passage of S.F. No. 3097, introduced by Senator Higgins, and H.F. 3536 introduced by Rep. Champion during the last legislative session.
Each decade, Minnesota redraws its legislative districts on the basis of population to ensure that each district contains the same population as other districts. In this way, all residents are given the same access to representation and government, fulfilling the Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” rule.
However, the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison location, instead of their home communities, results in significant distortions in achieving fair representation. Minnesota uses Census Bureau data for redistricting purposes, engaging in prison-based gerrymandering, even though Article VII, § 2 of the Minnesota Constitution says that a person’s residence does not change upon incarceration.
The problem in Minnesota is wide-spread; currently there are 10 Minnesota House districts where state and federal prison populations were counted as residents during the last redistricting cycle, significantly enhancing the weight of a vote cast in those districts. This also dilutes the votes of everyone who does not have a large prison in their district.
Minnesota could follow the example of other states that have already ensured the end of prison-based gerrymandering within their borders. New York, Maryland and Delaware, soon to the joined by California, have all ensured the end of prison-based gerrymandering though legislative requirements that incarcerated people be counted at home for redistricting purposes.
Crediting all of Minnesota’s incarcerated people to a few locations enhances the political clout of the people who live near prisons, while diluting voting power of all other Minnesotans. Ending prison-based gerrymandering before the next redistricting cycle will ensure that no one gets more of a vote just because they happen to live near a large prison.
Prison Based-Gerrymandering: Minnesota Citizens Redistricting Commission – September 19, 2011