The coming round of electoral redistricting in New York State following the 2010 census will be the first to take into account a state law passed that year that changes how prisoners are counted for population purposes. A group of Republican state senators led by State Sen. Elizabeth Little, however, have filed a lawsuit in the State Supreme Court in Albany challenging the law as an alleged violation of the New York State Constitution.
The law requires that prisoners be counted for districting purposes at their place of residence prior to incarceration, rather than as living within the district in which they are imprisoned. This method will decrease the population count in towns and municipalities that have large prisons.
Conversely, this law will increase the population size in urban and suburban areas, as 49 percent of prisoners in New York State are from New York City, and another 23 percent of prisoners come from other cities in the sate.
Such a shift in population counts could impact the political balance of the New York delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the State Legislature. These legislative bodies must draw their district boundaries so that there are roughly equal numbers of people living in each district, therefore ensuring that every voter’s vote counts equally.
The change in districting procedure enacted by the New York State Legislature will cause seven upstate senate districts to fall short of the minimum population numbers required to form a district, forcing the Legislature to redraw its districts.
In New York, upstate, rural areas tend to vote Republican, and downstate, urban areas tend to vote Democratic. Not surprisingly, Democrats have supported the new law and Republican have opposed it.
Michael McDonald, a political science professor at Binghamton University who specializes in voting rights and redistricting, said he believes the magnitude of political change in the State Legislature may be small.
“I think it will have a noticeable effect in the upstate areas that are representing districts with prisons in them,” McDonald said. “It will have a dispersed effect downstate but it will probably on balance shift the better part of one district to become a downstate district as opposed to an upstate district.”
Such a shift may nonetheless be significant, as Republicans hold only a narrow 32-30 seat majority in the State Senate.
Those in support of the new districting law say that it rectifies previous injustices that strip prisoners and their communities of representation.
The law states that the previous system of population counting violated a clause of the New York State constitution which reads “no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence, by reason of his or her presence or absence … while confined in any public prison.”
The law also states that the previous counting system “violat[ed] the one-person, one-vote principle of the Equal Protection Clause, which requires voting districts to have equal numbers of residents.”
Civil rights groups, such as the NAACP, had voiced concerns about minority underrepresentation in the old system. They cited statistics that black citizens in New York are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than white citizens, and that more than 90 percent of the state’s prisons are located in upstate, mostly white areas. Civil rights groups therefore argued that counting prisoners in the district where their prison is located takes political representation away from minority districts.
The Republican state senators who filed the lawsuit argue that the new law is just a political ploy to bring more power to the left-leaning urban areas.
Ibrahim Khan, spokesman for State Sen. Adriano Espaillat — a Democrat representing the 31st Senate District who co-sponsored the bill — dismissed accusations that Democrats were using the law for political power.
“This is the right thing to do regardless of its political implications,” Espaillat said. “We can’t artificially boost certain communities and harm others just because it makes sense for Republican politics. Ultimately this is about doing the right thing, and we have to let the political chips fall where they may.”
Kevin Wright, a human development professor at BU who studies prisons and crime, said the question was not that simple because voters from upstate districts containing prisons are more affected by the prison.
“People are employed there, it’s probably the No. 1 employer, or one of the top employers in that area,” Wright said. “[Local residents are] very dependent on it economically.”
Wright also said that residents of districts containing prisons care more about the well-being of the inmates.
“Getting adequate resources to the prison affects the quality life of prisoners, so a downstate person is going to say ‘I don’t care about those guys,’ whereas a person within their community that understands that a disgruntled population can hurt staff, they can riot, so there’s lots of reasons to take good care of prisoners,” Wright said.
McDonald said that the districting question is now a judicial matter that will be judged primarily on legal and constitutional grounds, not on ethics or political pragmatism.
“It won’t be decided as a matter of [political] principle because now we’re going into the courts as opposed to the political realm,” McDonald said.