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How Prison Gerrymandering In Wisconsin Will Impact The Census

Tomasz Zajda

The 2020 census will impact the nation — from determining how much federal money will go to states, to dividing congressional seats, to helping city planners organize and build for their futures. However, a less than stellar rollout and controversy over a citizenship question proposed by the Trump administration have severely hampered projections of its accuracy.

One area of the census that isn’t as scrutinized is the way states count their prisoners. In the practice of prison gerrymandering, mass incarceration of African Americans skews the census count in both the places the prisoners live and the prisons they are sent to.

"What they do is they count those folks who are behind bars as residents of the place they are incarcerated, not where that inmate might call home," explains independent journalist Natasha Haverty. Her work reporting on prison gerrymandering in Wisconsin is featured in the Reveal episode, “Don’t Count on the Census.”

"You're talking about moving blocks of non-voters around for the purpose of drawing districts, which makes it kind of an unusual aspect of drawing political districts," she adds.

"They count those folks who are behind bars as residents of the place they are incarcerated, not where that inmate might call home."

The counting of prisoners in the districts where they serve time has the effect of shifting political power away from black urban communities like those in Milwaukee to rural white ones.

According to Haverty, Wisconsin law blurs the line when discussing  the census and what that means for people in prison. There has been a lot of opinions from past state officials, and she says "some people in government will tell you it's actually state law [in Wisconsin] to count people who are in prison as residents of their home district."

While she notes that's debatable, the only concrete opinion we can turn to was written by state Attorney General Bob LaFollette in 1981. According to Haverty, his opinion said that when drawing districts, we must use unaltered census data. "So that's really the only thing that any redistricting boards have to go on now," she says. "Unless the attorney general this time around says this doesn't follow our Constitution 'one person, one vote' — it's hard to see Wisconsin changing."

READ: 'One Person, No Vote' Highlights Impact Of Voter Suppression Laws

Haverty says that the issue of prison gerrymandering extends to a bigger question of how change can come about if you're silencing the biggest stakeholders in this question — the prisoners who can't vote.

"I hope [this episode] gets people to maybe think about what their political power is and what it means when you have someone out there looking out for your interests and who doesn't have that and how change is ever going to happen democratically when we don't kind of level that out," she says.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Maggie Holdorf
Maggie Holdorf started as a WUWM Lake Effect intern in September 2019.