How prisoners count: the politics of prison gerrymandering in Illinois

By Joel Jacobs
Medill Reports

In Illinois, each person’s vote is not counted equally. A single vote for a state representative in Cook County is likely to wield less influence than one in Randolph County downstate.

Why? Because Randolph County is located in Illinois House District 116, which is home to the Menard and Pinckneyville prisons. They hold about 4,500 inmates, half of whom were sentenced from Cook County, around 300 miles away.

These prisoners cannot vote, but they are counted as residents of the 116th District by the census, giving each voter in the district a bit more power. During the last round of redistricting, each Illinois House district was drawn to include approximately 109,000 people based on census counts, meaning that prisoners account for more than one in twenty-five residents of Illinois House District 116.

This is called prison gerrymandering, and it affects local governments, state House and Senate districts, and federal congressional districts. The smaller the legislative district, the more significantly an incarcerated population could skew political power.

“Residents in Chicago are actually having their political power deflated,” said Kasey Henricks, a professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee, who co-authored a 2017 report on racial inequality in Chicago. Henricks’ report found that the political power of predominantly white downstate communities is “artificially inflated” at the expense of predominantly minority districts impacted by mass incarceration.

According to data from the Illinois Department of Corrections 38,920 people were in state prisons in Illinois as of Sept. 30. Almost half, 17,773, were sentenced from Cook County, but there are no state prisons in Cook County. Those incarcerated are disproportionately black, while prisons are often built in rural, whiter communities.

Prison gerrymandering would likely be eliminated if the census counted prisoners based on their residences prior to incarceration. However, the Census Bureau is not planning to change its practice for 2020, despite calls to do so from voting rights activists.

Without federal action, the choice has fallen to the states. Several states, including New York, California, Washington and Maryland, have passed laws changing how prisoners are counted. In Illinois, however, action has been limited.

Some counties and municipalities in Illinois have moved to exclude incarcerated populations when drawing local electoral districts, since large prisons can have a dramatic effect on county board and city council elections.

In the Illinois General Assembly, both Republicans and Democrats have prisons in their districts and therefore benefit politically from prison gerrymandering, resulting in tough political hurdles for statewide reform.

The politics of prison gerrymandering

For almost a decade, state Rep. La Shawn Ford has been trying to get a bill passed to end prison gerrymandering in Illinois. His No Representation Without Population Act would require the Illinois Department of Corrections to keep track of the addresses of prisoners prior to incarceration, and then use those addresses when counting populations during redistricting, which occurs every 10 years following the census.

“The way the law has been carried out all these years has clearly been a mistake,” said Ford, a Democrat who represents the 8th District, which includes part of Chicago’s West Side and its suburbs. In 1887, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that a prison is not an official residence, stating that “a person confined in prison under the judgment and sentence of a court does not thereby change his residence.”

Ford also sees prison gerrymandering as an injustice because prisoners are not truly part of the community where they are counted. “When those citizens that are incarcerated look for help, they call people that represent them in their home districts,” he said.

The debate over prison gerrymandering has been framed as a partisan battle, with Democrats advocating for reform, and Republicans opposed. Rural areas with prisons tend to be represented by Republicans, and, in Illinois, about 74% of state prisoners are held in House districts controlled by Republicans.

Eight Illinois House Districts have over 2,000 state prisoners. (Source: Illinois Department of Corrections, made with Datawrapper)

Democrats currently control the state House, state Senate and governorship, and 59 Democrats have co-sponsored Ford’s No Representation Without Population Act. Including Ford, this means that a majority of the House’s 118 members have their name on the bill.

Despite this, Ford’s bill never made it to a full vote on the House floor this year. “It was a call by leadership,” Ford said. “There was some concern that the passage of the bill could possibly dilute some Democratic districts in the rural areas of Illinois.”

While Republican districts hold most of the prisoners, several Democratic districts have prisons as well. Most of the Democrats with state prisons in their districts have not co-sponsored Ford’s bill. This includes Nathan Reitz, a Democrat who represents the aforementioned 116th District, which holds the most state prisoners of any Illinois House district.

Scott Kennedy, a leading expert on Illinois election data, said that the 116th District has been trending Republican for years and is at risk for Democrats. “Any further changes to the makeup of this district would probably make it more likely that the Republicans win this district in 2020, an outcome that seems likely to happen regardless,” he said.

Before 2011, the 116th District included only Menard Correctional Center, but in 2011 it was redrawn to include Pinckneyville Correctional Center. At the time, Democrats controlled the redistricting process, and the district was represented by Democrat Dan Reitz, Nathan Reitz’s father.

A map of House District 116 as drawn in 2011. The district includes two state prisons with a total of about 4,500 prisoners. (Source: Illinois Board of Elections)

Nathan Reitz did not respond to requests for comment. His predecessors representing the 116th District voted against previous versions of Ford’s bill in 2011 and 2013.

Steve Brown, a spokesperson for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is a co-sponsor of the bill, said that prison gerrymandering and other redistricting issues were under review. “We hear this every 10 years or so, ‘Oh, this is all gerrymandered.’ Well it’s not — it’s done to comply with the Voting Rights Act,” Brown said.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 mandates that districts are not drawn to dilute the voting power of minorities. Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, which advocates to end prison gerrymandering, said that he was not aware of any laws ending prison gerrymandering conflicting with the Voting Rights Act.

Wagner also pointed to a 2011 lawsuit that attempted to overturn Maryland’s law banning prison gerrymandering. The plaintiff argued that the law discriminated against African Americans, but a federal court ruled otherwise, finding that the opposite was true. “The Act was the product of years of work by groups dedicated to advancing the interests of minorities,” the court said in its decision.

Ford said that his bill would help “protect some of the African American districts” in the Chicago area during the next round of redistricting in 2021. Some districts could lose their African American majority due to the decline in Cook County’s black population in the past decade, particularly on the South and West sides of Chicago.

According to Kennedy, the election data expert, counting prisoners in their home residences is unlikely to give Democrats a bigger advantage in Cook County than they already have, but Ford’s concern could be valid. “The population loss combined with the loss of residents to prison may reduce the number of majority African American districts that can be drawn,” Kennedy said. About 13,000 of the prisoners behind bars in other parts of the state after being sentenced in Cook County are black.

Hope for reform

The next Census takes place in spring of 2020, and new districts will be drawn and voted on in 2021, meaning that action must be taken quickly to make an impact in the next decade.

Professor Henricks appreciates Ford’s decade-long push for reform, but is wary of the political challenges facing the bill. “Given that it’s been shut down so many times I just wonder if it’s just symbolism at this point.”

Ford remains hopeful, but admits that he needs more support. “The public has been very quiet on this issue, but it’s very important. We need some political help from the advocates in Illinois to want this bill passed.”

Correction: The organization is called Prison Policy Initiative, not the Prison Policy Institute.

Photo at top: A satellite view of Pinckneyville Correctional Center in southern Illinois. (Source: Google Maps)