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Quantifying the Effects of Prison Gerrymandering in Arizona and Hawaii

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What does fair representation look like? Whose interests are worthy of being grouped together into a district? How do we accurately represent the geography of the United States in our electoral system, a geography that is inseparable from histories of segregation, racialization, and colonization, without reproducing those same processes?

These are some of the questions at the heart of today’s fierce debate about the redistricting process. This debate is happening at the local, state, and federal level, since each state has different redistricting requirements. Some state legislatures draw their maps, while other states have established Independent Redistricting Commissions to do so without input from the legislators. Some states privilege ideas of “compact” districts, while others request that each new plan remain as close to the previous one as possible. The lack of consistency around the process of redistricting, as well as the different human and physical geography of each state makes it very difficult to propose a one-size-fits-all process for drawing electoral maps.

In these national debates, one part of redistricting often gets overshadowed: prison gerrymandering , also known as prison malapportionment. Thirty-four states count incarcerated people where they are incarcerated and not at their place of residence. This means that the areas with prisons get a population boost because the incarcerated people are counted in the redistricting process despite having no voting power.

Prison malapportionment disproportionately affects communities of color. People of color, especially Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates. Many jails are in rural white areas with a low population, which means that these areas are overrepresented, while the areas that the people of color come from are underrepresented.

Although we know that prison gerrymandering is a problem, we wanted to see if we could quantify its impact. Thus, the central question of our project is: What is the effect of prison gerrymandering?

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