You’ve heard the shrill debate about shredding the 14th amendment and redefining citizenship, mostly driven by reactionaries who are willing to gut the Constitution in order to exclude immigrants. To understand just how radical such a change would be, look at new legislation in New York that shows how the constitutional concept of citizenship and representation has enabled the enfranchisement of marginalized groups across three centuries of U.S. history.
The New York bill, approved by the legislature last week, aims to eliminate so-called prison-based gerrymandering, by barring counties from using census data to inflate their population numbers. Under current policy, the census counts the state’s incarcerated residents in the county where they’re imprisoned. So a young man from the Bronx convicted of a felony may spend much of his adult life as a "resident" of the upstate prison town where he rarely even sees the world outside his cell block. His story, multiplied by tens of thousands, has led to a skewing of political district lines, shifting power to whiter upstate regions from the darker, poorer five boroughs, home to a cluster of troubled communities from which prisoners are disproportionately drawn.
The Prison Policy Initiative explains that this numbers game of local politicians "padding" their districts with prison headcounts, which has impacted an estimated 44,000 mostly Black and Latino New Yorkers, "artificially enhances the weight of a vote cast in those districts at the expense of all districts that do not contain a prison."
This distortion of the demographic landscape has an eerie historical precedent: The Three-fifths compromise of the slavery era allowed Southern states to count enslaved (disenfranchised) Blacks as a fraction of a "real" citizen for electoral purposes.
According to PPI’s research, seven New York State Senate districts depend on prison-based gerrymandering for their very existence. In one City Council ward in Rome, New York, residents should thank the thousands of imprisoned neighbors they’ve passed by on the way to the polls, who constitute about half of the "official" population, for making local votes count a little bit more.
While the new bill parallels other recent reforms to New York’s criminal justice system, the legislation alone will not reverse the incarceration frenzy that has hollowed out poor urban communities. It also won’t alter public funding allotted based on census data, nor will it correct the misrepresentation of gender ratios in communities where young men of color are systematically swept up by police.
But the initiative, which reflects similar campaigns underway in other states, does begin to undo the perverse incentive to keep shoving people into upstate prisons, where county governments may profit from their physical presence without heeding their political interests.
Forty-five years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people have been politically and socially disenfranchised, removed from the electorate and the workforce, and their communities. Until they’re free to participate fully in democracy, the new law ensures that many at least will be counted as part of the communities they’ve been pulled away from, instead of the ones that lock them up.