My Two Census

Formerly the non-partisan watchdog of the 2010 US Census, and currently an opinion blog that covers all things political, media, foreign policy, globalization, and culture…but sometimes returning to its census/demographics roots.

Phantom Constituents

Back when My Two Census was in our initial launch phase, we failed to take note of a great article from The New York Times about how census data can be skewed to affect elections. This February 6 piece titled “Phantom Constituents” discusses how prison populations can alter census counts. From the article:

The distortions caused by prison gerrymandering are clearly apparent at the state level, where inmates are sometimes used to pad thinly populated legislative districts that would otherwise be illegal under federal law. But the same issue crops up within counties, towns and cities.

Consider, for example, the city of Anamosa, Iowa, where city a councilman from a prison community was elected to office on the strength of just two votes (both write ins) back 2006. According to the census, Anamosa’s Ward 2 had almost 1,400 residents — about the same as the other three wards in town. But 1,300 of Ward 2’s “residents’’ were actually inmates of the Anamosa State Penitentiary. Once the inmates were subtracted, ward 2 turned out to have fewer than 60 actual residents.

Anamosa’s voters have passed a referendum that requires City Council members to be elected at large. But this small-town saga has thrown a spotlight onto this problem. As we have already seen, prison gerrymandering undercuts the power of populous areas and exaggerates the power of regions that are thinly settled.