Virginia Ends Prison Gerrymandering In Growing Push Against Unfair Redistricting, Felony Disenfranchisement

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Written by Ann Brown
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Virginia is ending prison gerrymandering in a growing nationwide push against unfair redistricting and felony disenfranchisement. In this Tuesday, July 3, 2012 photo, inmates walk in the yard in front of a cellblock at the maximum-security Mount Olive Correctional Center in Mount Olive, W.Va. In southern West Virginia, they often go to the coal mines. In the northern counties, they go to the oil and gas industry. But everywhere, corrections officers are fleeing the state’s regional jails and prisons for better-paying jobs. With the 49th-lowest starting salary in the nation, it’s no surprise. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Virginia has become the latest state to put an end to prison gerrymandering, the practice of counting incarcerated people where they are detained instead of their last-known residence for purposes of redistricting. This move, advocates say, will help put an end to felony disenfranchisement. 

Gov. Ralph Northam recently approved the adoption of Senate Bill 717 and House Bill 1255, which pave the way for Virginia to draw fairer maps, The Appeal reported. The identical bills make other changes to redistricting criteria and were passed by the Democratic legislature in February.

Virginia joins four other states that have put an end to prison gerrymandering since May 2019: Colorado, New Jersey, Nevada, and Washington State. Until then, only four states had done so—California, Delaware, Maryland, and New York, the Appeal reported.

All the states that have ended prison gerrymandering are under Democratic governance, The Fulcrum reported. 

From now on, when states draw their next legislative maps, and in most cases their congressional and local maps also, they will count the incarcerated where they last lived.

“The  reality is that when they’re released from prison and they’re back in their home locality, that’s where they need resources,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, a progressive group that supported Virginia’s laws. “It’s their home safety nets that will be important, and so it’s important that they be counted in their home localities.”

The Virginia move is significant because “prison gerrymandering shifts political power toward the typically more rural and whiter communities where prisons are located, and away from cities and areas with more Black residents that suffer the brunt of over-policing and incarceration,” The Appeal reported.

In Virginia, African Americans are incarcerated at five times higher than whites. 

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“When we’re talking about the voting bloc and voting power, African-American votes get watered down when people who cannot vote are included in the vote totals,” Democratic Delegate Marcia Price told the Virginia Mercury in February. 

Still, there are opponents to ending prison gerrymandering. 

“Those representing areas where prisons are located have opposed such bills nationwide, saying their communities deserve a greater share of government services — often tied to the population totals reported by the census once a decade — because of the people housed in prisons,” The Fulcrum reported.