Kansas Prisoners Can’t Vote, But Some Critics Say They’re Gerrymander Anyway | KCUR 89.3
TOPEKA, Kansas— When a man from Wichita lands in a jail in Lansing, Kansas, the US census counts him as a resident of Lansing. This ultimately transfers at least some federal money and political influence from Wichita to Lansing.
Some prisoners’ rights advocates see it as an often overlooked form of gerrymandering that sucks resources from the poorest communities most likely to lose residents to incarceration.
Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas, said counting these inmates among the population of their home communities better reflects the population of the state. And while the census count isn’t due for another eight years, those numbers are being used to redraw congressional and state legislative maps now.
Kansas has already begun the redistricting process. A map of Congress drawn by Republicans has passed both houses of the state legislature. A Governor Laura Kelly veto of this map got canceled by lawmakers. that, in turn, sparked multiple lawsuits challenging the card’s legitimacy. The Senate and State House maps will be drawn soon, and Kubic said it’s not too late to make changes.
“(Lawmakers) have the power to do that if they want to,” he said. “So I don’t think we should give them a free pass and say there’s nothing they can do about it now and we have to wait until 2030.”
Sen. Rick Wilborn, chairman of the redistricting committee, declined to comment on the proposal.
Kansans convicted of crimes while in prison, on parole or on probation cannot vote, but Kubic said the way the state draws the maps gives some people more political power than others.
In one case in Iowa, someone was elected to the Anamosa City Council with just two votes because much of the district was made up of a prison population, leaving fewer people eligible to vote. The board member represented the prison, but no one behind bars could vote.
Most prisons in Kansas are in rural areas of the state, and one prison can dramatically change the population of a city or legislative district. Kansas Department of Corrections population figures available online do not date back to when the census was counted, but based on current population, Lansing Correctional Facility represents 21% of its city’s population and the The El Dorado Correctional Facility accounts for 14% of that. the population of the city.
Kubic said the current method of counting inmates overestimates the total size of rural towns and underestimates the size of urban and more populated parts of the state.
Trevon Barnett, an inmate at El Dorado Correctional Facility, had never been to El Dorado until his sentencing and cannot even name a single business in the town. Barnett plans to leave El Dorado once he is released later this year, but he is considered a resident of El Dorado until 2030.
“Home is in Kansas City, Kansas,” he said. “I don’t feel like I belong here at all.”
A 2019 study by Villanova University found that if Pennsylvania counted inmates by their last out-of-prison address, four state legislative districts would be too small and four districts would be too large. The state would also likely gain another district where the majority of people were people of color. And while similar research hasn’t been done in Kansas, Kubic said the Wichita and Kansas City metro areas will likely grow in size.
“Parts of these areas that have large communities of color could benefit from additional representation through adjustment,” he said.
But inmates are counted by address because it’s easier, said Margo Anderson, who has written several books on the census.
Anderson, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said census forms are mailed to every address. When a form is not completed at an address, someone checks that address to see if the house is empty. But prisons, college dorms, the military, and nursing homes have ever-changing populations, and it’s hard to send out the right amount of forms to count everyone.
“The response from the Census Bureau has generally been, ‘We can’t do that,'” she said. “So the discussion moved to the state government level.”
The Census Bureau contacts administrative officials at gathering places to count the population. Proponents of keeping the current system say this is the easiest way to do it, and also argue that prisoners use the resources of the legislative district in which the prison is located, so they should be counted in that district.
Anderson said this problem has become more prominent in recent decades as the prison population has grown. About a dozen states have passed legislation to redesign how prisoners are counted in the census or during state or federal redistribution talks. Rhode Island is the most recent state to do so after approving a bill last month.
“(States) have nothing to do at all,” Anderson said. “They can use the information that comes from the federal government, or they can, for redistricting purposes, pass a law that says, ‘No, we’re going to send them back where they came from. “”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at [email protected]
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