But there is something President Obama can do, right now, that could make huge strides towards fixing one aspect of longstanding disenfranchisement. We could end the practice of prison gerrymandering, or including prisoners in the US census where they are imprisoned rather than where they lived before incarceration.
This practice transfers the voting power of millions of mostly urban black and brown people to overwhelmingly white and rural districts, an all-out plunder of the political power of black and brown communities. They are counted in the population in the districts where their prisons are even though convicted felons are banned from voting.
As the Obama administration’s US Census Bureau undertakes an historic one-month comment process ahead of the 2020 census, the time has come to mobilize and stop an injustice that is as grotesque as it is routine.
We know from modern campaigns to end mass incarceration that the United States holds more than 20% of the world’s prisoners despite having only 5% of the world’s population. The vast majority (60%) of those people are black and brown, and they’re in prison and jail for crimes, like using drugs, for which white people often never get arrested, prosecuted or imprisoned.
Under the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment of our constitution, states are required to apportion their congressional districts and state legislative seats according to “one man, one vote”. This precedent was established by US supreme court cases Wesberry v Sanders (1964) and Reynolds v Sims (1964).
Just this year, in March, the US district court for the Northern District of Florida ruled that Jefferson County’s practice of prison gerrymandering is unconstitutional. In his summary statement, Judge Mark E Walker wrote, “To treat the inmates the same as actual constituents makes no sense under any theory of one person, one vote, and indeed under any theory of representative democracy.”
But prison gerrymandering allows us to normalize a process which denies representation – and humanity – to millions of people. People in prison have children, parents, siblings, friends and communities who need them, who need services in their absence, and who deserve to be counted.
This is why the Women Donors Network has signed on to a letter with the Funders’ Committee on Civic Participation and other prominent foundations, asking the US Census Bureau to change this unjust policy.
It’s also why WDN has for years supported the leadership of formerly incarcerated people, and has helped to fund the first national conference of Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People and Families Movement, to be held in September. This conference seeks to shape the narrative of not only the president’s last days in office but of the next administration in regard to prison policies. We are at a turning point in the struggle to stop prison gerrymandering.
President Obama has made clear that equality and equal representation are values important to his administration. Addressing prison gerrymandering falls in line with those values. Obama has the power to solve this issue – he can strike down an unconstitutional practice of how prisoners are counted, while standing up for the premise of one person, one vote.
Krista Brewer is an activist, a member of the Board of Directors of Women Donors Network and a lifelong resident of Atlanta, Georgia
Copyright; The Guardian News and Observer Media Limited. Reprinted with permission.
This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with permission or license. We thank the Author, Krista Brewer for her kindness and perspicacious perspective. May we all do our research and partake in creating a democratic system. EmpathyEducates would also like to express our appreciation for The Guardian and for its mission — being an enduring source of inspiring information and ideas.