Ending Prison Gerrymandering

An initiative of the Jeffery Golan & Francis Vilella-Vélez Voting Justice Project.

Legislative districts across Pennsylvania get an unfair population boost when our state’s 47,000 inmates–most of whom cannot vote while incarcerated–are counted as residents of their cells, rather than their hometowns. This practice, which skews political representation towards districts where prisons are located, is known as prison gerrymandering.

In Pennsylvania’s 123rd House District, for example, more than 8% of “residents” are disenfranchised inmates serving felony sentences in state or federal prison. Most of these inmates are black or Hispanic and hail from urban areas, such as Philadelphia, far outside of the rural Schuylkill County district. In contrast, over 90% of eligible voters in the 123rd House District are white.

A recent Villanova University study found that, without this prison population boost, four predominantly white and rural state House districts in Pennsylvania would have too few people to form a district. At the same time, urban and predominantly minority communities would have a greater voice in the legislature if prisoners were counted at their home addresses.

After the 2020 US Census, every state will redraw its district lines, and a growing number of states, including New York, Maryland, and Delaware, will count prison inmates in their hometowns for redistricting purposes. We are now working to ensure that Pennsylvania joins them through advocacy and public education about prison gerrymandering.

We believe that the Pennsylvania Constitution and Pennsylvania Election Code already require that the State Legislature count prison inmates at their home addresses in order to fully follow the principle of “one person, one vote.” When the Legislative Reapportionment Committee convenes in 2021 to redrawn our state legislative districts, we will watch carefully to ensure that it follows state law by counting inmates at their pre-incarceration addresses.

The Jeffrey Golan & Frances Vilella-Vélez Voting Rights Project