Even though they can’t vote if they’ve been convicted of a felony, Virginia prisoners are still counted as residents of the place where they’re locked up for the purposes of the U.S. Census.
That creates a tricky question with the way Virginia redraws its political districts every 10 years. For the purposes of elections and democratic representation, should those inmates be counted where they’re incarcerated? Or should they be counted in the neighborhoods they came from?
Under legislation advancing in the Democratic-led General Assembly, a new, post-census adjustment for the incarcerated population would be created to to end so-called prison gerrymandering. Instead of counting state, local and federal inmates at their prison or jail, the new process would count them at their last home address, as long as that address is in Virginia and can be verified by state officials.
It’s difficult to predict whether that change would create any significant partisan shifts in the affected districts. But with roughly 60,000 people projected to be incarcerated in Virginia during the 2021 redistricting, the prison adjustment could be a significant new factor in how geographic lines are drawn.
Supporters of the change say it creates a more precise count. Reducing inflated numbers in rural areas where most correctional facilities are located and shifting them to urban communities where many inmates are from, they say, addresses one aspect of mass incarceration’s impact on the democratic process.
“When we’re talking about the voting bloc and voting power, African American votes get watered down when people who cannot vote are included in the vote totals,” said Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, who has helped bring the issue to the legislature’s attention. “It’s not an accurate depiction of the demographics.”
Democratic lawmakers have added the prison adjustment to several bills laying out criteria for how the 2021 redistricting process will work, regardless of who’s drawing the lines. If Virginia establishes a bipartisan redistricting commission for 2021, that commission would have to follow the rule for incarcerated populations. In the unlikely event those redistricting reform efforts collapse and the General Assembly draws the maps as it has in the past, the proposed change for prison populations would still apply.
After the 2020 census, Virginia will redraw its General Assembly and congressional lines in response to population shifts. To preserve the principle of equal representation, districts for each legislative body are drawn to have roughly the same number of people. For the next redistricting process, each House of Delegates district will be drawn to have somewhere about 86,000 people. For the state Senate, each district will probably have about 215,000 people. The exact population targets could change depending on the census results.
Several lawmakers pointed to Southside Virginia’s House District 75 as an example of how prisons can skew population numbers, particularly when it comes to getting accurate counts of African American voters to stay in compliance with the Voting Rights Act. That district — currently represented by Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex — is home to the Greensville Correctional Center, Sussex I and Sussex II, three state prisons with a combined inmate population of more than 5,200 people.
“It’s much fairer to spread them out more broadly across the commonwealth,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, the sponsor of one of the redistricting criteria bills. “We try to do that by saying, if we know their last known address and its in the commonwealth, we’ll count them there.”
Though Republicans haven’t made a concerted effort to strip the prison change, some seem skeptical of the new procedure.
“If somebody’s doing 18 months, they’re probably going to go back to where they live. If they’re serving life, isn’t their home where they’re being incarcerated?,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. “I don’t think there’s any clean way to do that.”
House Republicans voted for a redistricting commission bill that includes the new prison criteria. Republicans voted against a similar bill in the Senate, saying they’d prefer to keep the bill creating the commission separate from the language establishing the criteria.
“A census, in my view, historically is you count people where they are,” said Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, who raised concerns about the prison change and other aspects of the criteria on the Senate floor. “And this allows you to do something different, which is not count people where they are. And where they are is where the community has the burden of those people.”
The change for counting inmates is included in the redistricting criteria backed by OneVirginia2021, the anti-gerrymandering group pushing for a constitutional amendment to establish a bipartisan redistricting commission.
“It’s more accurate to count them, if we can, where they’re from,” said Brian Cannon, OneVirginia2021’s executive director.
The prison-adjusted population numbers would be used in General Assembly, congressional and local government redistricting, but would not be used for the purposes of allocating state or federal aid.
Staff reporter Ned Oliver contributed to this story.