With the midterm elections fast approaching, a little-known and unfortunate quirk in the American electoral system merits attention. It may surprise you to learn that prisoners are counted as residents of whatever town, county, and-or state in which they are imprisoned. And since most states do not permit prisoners to vote, counting prisoners in this way artificially inflates the voting power of people who happen to live close to prisons. Upon incarceration, an American adult isnt merely stripped of the right to vote – his vote is taken from him and given, collectively, to people who share the prison’s political subdivision.
This policy reduces the electoral representation of cities and sends it out to rural areas where large prisons are most commonly situated. In some cases, the residents of sparsely populated areas have double the voting power of other voters – courtesy of the incarcerated, who havent even necessarily been found guilty!
This policy is worse than was the three-fifths compromise, itself a high-water mark for cynicism. While slavery was still legal in the US south, southerners wanted to have their pecan pie and eat it too. With respect to civil and political rights, they didnt want to regard blacks as human beings; but in order to gain more representation in Congress and more votes in the electoral college for presidential elections, southern politicians needed to maximize their headcount. And so for purposes of the US Census, if the South had its way, lawsy mercy, yes: blacks are people too!
North and South struck an unseemly compromise, which permanently mars the US Constitution: a slave was to be treated as three-fifths of a human being for purposes of apportionment. Of course slaves werent allowed to vote – the votes their bodies accrued went, perversely, to free white southern voters, who consequentially got 30% more Congressman and 30% more electors in the Electoral College.
Though their absolute numbers are smaller, US electoral practices with respect to prisoners are even more unjust. They are denied the right to vote in 48 of 50 states. (Maine and Vermont are the exceptions.) And yet they are counted as full-fledged residents of their place of incarceration – literally transferring their voting power, intact, to others. Since the federal prison system often shifts inmates across state lines, this practice serves to arbitrarily transfer voting power from states with high crime rates to states with large prison populations.
This practice isnt confined to the usual backward states. In New York City, prisoners incarcerated on Rikers Island are counted as residents of Astoria, inflating the voting power of that neighborhood’s residents on the City Council. Similar distortions are seen in municipal governing bodies all across New York State.
It was only recently that college students were finally treated as residents where they attend college, to allow them to participate in the politics of the place they spend most of their time. By a similar logic, prisoners who are allowed to vote should either be counted as residents of their place of incarceration, or of their last place residence. But for the 99% of US prisoners who are not allowed to vote, their voting power should not be arbitrarily bestowed on the people who happen to live near the prison. Instead, it should remain in the community where the prisoner last resided. Even better, if states insist on denying the right to vote to prisoners and felons, their representation should be accordingly diminished for purposes of federal elections.