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Census, prisons, redistricting

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The point has been made, for many purposes, that the original draft of the United States Constitution required that every person in the country be counted in a once-every-ten-years census.

It did exempt “Indians not taxed” and provided a numerical discount – “three fifths of all other Persons,” for slaves. The point generally however was that the census was intended to count everyone, even then. It did not exempt non-citizens, and didn’t exclude people who were incarcerated.

That point underlies a Nampa story (in the Idaho Press) last week sure to interest political strategists looking a step ahead beyond 2020, when Idaho like other states redistricts its congressional and legislative districts to account for changes in population.

The census already is gearing up (have you seen the employment notices sprouting all over?) but details about the numbers and processes of the effort are moving ahead of even that. One of the most eye-catching reports concerns the Idaho prison complex in southern Ada County.

More than half of Idaho’s state prisoners, about 5,600 of them, are housed there. They are non-voters, but they are counted in the census as residents of that location rather than wherever their previous home might have been. Their location is in the bounds of legislative district 22, which takes in Kuna and most of southern and southwestern Ada County, and they make up about 12 percent of the residents of the district.

You can turn that around and look at it this way: Fewer votes are needed to elect a member of the legislature from District 22. This is not much of a partisan matter; this area long has been heavily Republican and the margins between the parties (whenever a Democrat does run here) aren’t close. But the fact that fewer voters are needed to elect here means that voters here are more powerful than in, say, a district based in Meridian or Eagle.

You can say some of the same in congressional terms. The prison complex is in Idaho’s first congressional district, meaning that voters there are incrementally more powerful than those in the second district.

The Idaho Press story added that, “the phenomenon became known as ‘prison-based gerrymandering.’ The Census Bureau has faced criticism for this, and has so far stood its ground. It announced it will not change the way it counts prisoners in 2020.”

Census doesn’t really deserve the hashing, though, even if some of the results seem a little locally odd. The idea of the census is a little like that of an opinion poll: It’s intended to be a snapshot in time rather than a three- or four-dimensional image. It’s intended to take a picture of where we are at a given moment rather than in some deeper sense. Are you and I “from” the place where we will be spending tonight? Maybe, maybe not. But we’ll never get a clear overall picture if we start making exceptions.

The census rules actually do seem to approach exceptions territory at times. As one description (by Pew Research Center) put it, people are supposed to be counted at a specific location if they, “Live or stay at the residence most of the time; OR stayed there on April 1, 2010 and had no permanent place to live; OR stay at the residence more time than any other place they might live or stay.” There’s a little room for ambiguity in this, in the case, for example, of some college students.

But the prisoners are stuck in place.

That means this is going to lead to some warping of the system in places. But we can hope that the little warps in the counting will, for the most part, cancel each other out around the country. It’s not a perfect system, but we should be able to live with it.

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