[COMM-ORG] Redistricting and prison gerrymandering in NY

Discussion list for COMM-ORG colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
Wed Apr 13 10:53:27 CDT 2011

 From: "Sean Barry, VOCAL-NY" <sean at vocal-ny.org>

Read VOCAL-NY's op-ed in the Huffington Post (copied below and online at
http://huff.to/fIi1oB) calling for full implementation of the new law
ending prison-based gerrymandering, the practice of counting inmates
where they are incarcerated instead of their home communities for the
purpose of redistricting.

Last week, a conservative group of upstate Senate Republicans filed a
lawsuit seeking to block implementation of the new law before the next
round of redistricting. Then lawsuit is a blatant attempt by Senate
Republicans to preserve their majority by using the bodies of prison
inmates to create legislative districts that would not otherwise exist.
Ramon Velasquez, a VOCAL-NY leader who was counted as a resident of
Wyoming County during the last round of redistricting when he was
incarcerated in Attica, responded in the op-ed below.


Ramon Velasquez | VOCAL New York activist

Ramon Velasquez is a leader in VOCAL New York (formerly the NYC AIDS
Housing Network), a grassroots membership organization led by low-income
people who are living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, drug use and mass
incarceration. He has three decades of experience organizing for
inmate’s rights both inside and outside prison walls in New York, and is
currently working on VOCAL-NY’s campaign for jobs, housing and voting
rights for parolees.

Huffington Post: Don't Turn Back the Clock on Equal Voting Rights in NY
Posted: 04/ 8/11 03:39 PM ET

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

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.

-- Sean Barry VOCAL-NY (formerly the NYC AIDS Housing Network - NYCAHN)
646-373-3344 (cell) sean at vocal-ny.org website: www.VOCAL-NY.org
facebook: www.facebook.com/nycahn twitter:
http://twitter.com/vocalnewyork donate online:

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