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Don't Turn Back the Clock on Equal Voting Rights in NY

A person living in a town with a prison has more voting power than most other New Yorkers because of a practice called "prison-based gerrymandering."
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What if I told you your vote counts more depending on where you live in New York? Should a resident of Wyoming or Cayuga County gets more say in who is elected than a resident of Brooklyn or the Bronx?

At 51, I voted for the first time in my life last fall after I was discharged from parole. Now that I've done my time, I expect my vote, or my neighbor's, to count the same as any other vote cast in this state. A person living in a town with a prison, however, has more voting power than me or most other New Yorkers because of a practice called "prison-based gerrymandering."

Here's how it works now. During the last round of redistricting, New York counted prison inmates where they were incarcerated instead of their home address, allowing prison towns to count "phantom voters " and create districts that would otherwise not have enough people. This also dilutes the voting power of those living in districts with high rates of incarceration.

Thankfully, that should change soon as a result of a landmark civil rights bill passed and signed into law last year that requires inmates be counted as residents of their home communities during the next round of redistricting. It would end the practice of using the bodies of nearly 60,000 inmates -- mostly African American or Latino -- to transfer political power away from communities with high incarceration rates to predominantly rural prison towns.

But a small group of Senate Republicans are trying to reverse this civil rights gain through a new lawsuit trying to block implementation of the law when legislative districts are redrawn next year. It should be recognized for what it is -- an attempt to deny equal voting rights to New Yorkers regardless of where they live.

I did not know that I was being counted as a resident of Wyoming County when I was incarcerated. I always considered Brooklyn my home, which is where my family lives. When I came back to my old neighborhood, I had to deal with HIV/AIDS, homelessness and finding work. Those are issues that many people in my community have to deal with, and we need adequate political representation to ensure they are addressed in government.

Prison-based gerrymandering has continued even though inmates have no voting rights, no common interest with the surrounding community outside the prison walls, and almost all eventually return home.

The damaging effect of this particular form of gerrymandering was not always clear. When state incarceration rates were relatively low, the practice of counting inmates where they were incarcerated did not noticeably alter legislative districts. But as the number of New Yorkers behind bars has ballooned since the war on drugs began nearly forty years ago, so has the distorting effect of this type of gerrymandering. According to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, seven upstate Senate districts would not meet minimal population requirements and therefore need to be redrawn if inmates were subtracted.

Let me be clear. This is not a downstate versus upstate or urban versus rural issue. More than a dozen upstate New York counties with prisons have already subtracted prison inmates when drawing local districts, recognizing that it inflates voting power for some at the expense of everyone else.

This is also not about money tied to the census or any other formula. Ending this unfair practice would have no effect whatsoever on funding distribution in New York.

There was a notorious clause written into our constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person when creating legislative districts, even though they had no voting rights. Civil rights legislation and Supreme Court cases in the 1960s finally guaranteed voting rights and established the principle of one person, one vote. The law is further catching up to ensure we do not create a new system of undermining equal voting rights through prison-based gerrymandering. We cannot let Senate Republicans turn back the clock.