Commentary

Prohibited from voting, but changing election outcomes

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About 26,000 voting age adults in Indiana cannot vote, yet they influence the outcome of Hoosier elections. They are the 26,000-plus state prisoners who come from all over Indiana but are considered residents of the county where they are incarcerated. Because they are prohibited from voting, they reduce the impact of native voters of the mostly rural 19 counties with state prison. Recently, residents of Putnam and LaPorte counties expressed concern that their votes have been diluted at the hearings hosted by Indiana’s independent redistricting commission.

Putnam County is in District 4 with Montgomery County so the 2,400 residents of its prison in Putnamville count as residents of our district. While that has some minimal impacts on our national congressional district, its greater impact is on who represents Putnam County in the statehouse. In 2018, about 30,000 voting age people lived in Putnam County, so just under eight percent of Putnam County residents were non-voting prisoners from all over Indiana.

This happens because the census counts residents based on where they sleep most nights. Depauw University’s college students are also counted as residents. At first blush, it seems equitable to count college students and prisoners by this standard, except that college students can vote. They have the right to be represented at will. They can choose to vote as residents with the concerns of Putnam County and can approach their congressional representatives about the concerns of the community. Prisoners can’t. Lumping them in one county reduces the size of other state districts and narrows the impact of local constituents, especially those compacted into the county’s town or urban areas. There may be fewer people living in the rural portions of the district, but they seem like a larger because a portion of the district can’t even vote.

This matters, wrote Patricia Rossi of the League of Women Voters in Connecticut in early April. “It matters where a person is counted and where they can actually vote. If you are counted in a district where you cannot vote (while in prison), that district gets more representation than it should, compared to the district where you actually live when not incarcerated. Your home district gets less representation.” Prisons are built in mostly rural communities. Prisoners tend to come from urban areas. If we counted prisoners by where they came from and where they will likely return, then those districts will get the representation they deserve and residents of the 19 prison districts will get honest, competitive elections that reflect who actually can vote.

This was such an issue in Vigo County that in 2013, commissioners voted to exclude the federal prison population when it comes to redistricting. Doing so ensured that the federal prison complex’s 3,300 inmates did not skew representation of the county. More than 200 other communities in the United States have also excluded non-eligible adults from being counted in the voting population to prevent their communities’ concerns from being weakened.

This is gerrymandering using prisons and its result is that politicians win by playing to extremes. We, the electorate, wonder how or if letters, calls and meetings matter to our representatives and why legislators mostly vote on party lines, rather than building consensus.

“It used to be that the party in power would try to satisfy its base, so they’d reach out to moderates. If every district is gerrymandered then you won’t be elected by being moderate. Only the extreme will get elected,” noted Ethan Hollander, Associate Professor of Political Science at Wabash College. Our state politicians have “gerrymandered the middle out of existence.” But most Hoosiers are nuanced in their politics and in the middle, which is why holding the redistricting process accountable for squashing prison (and other) gerrymandering is in our best interest.

 

The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.

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