TERRE HAUTE —
Terre Haute will no longer count federal prisoners when the city slices its population into six equal City Council districts. That decision by the City Council last week to remove the inmates at the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex from the council district mathematical formula may not make waves, but it makes sense.
The one-person, one-vote concept is the bedrock of the constitutionally guided U.S. electoral process. The council’s unanimous vote to leave the penitentiary population out of the district division formula solidifies Terre Haute’s compliance with the promise of equal access to government representation under the U.S. Constitution. The action corrects an imbalance.
The need to fix the imbalance became apparent during the past decade, and was illuminated by the 2010 U.S. Census process. After every decennial census, national, state and local legislative bodies reconfigure their districts, based on the updated population count. The Constitution and subsequent Supreme Court rulings call for each entity’s districts to contain roughly the same number of citizens. The system gives each person’s vote equal weight and their representatives equal influence in the affairs of government.
Terre Haute’s numbers are skewed, though. Each of its six City Council districts contain approximately 9,500 residents under maps drawn after the 2000 Census. But in District 1, nearly one-third of its residents are men incarcerated in the federal prison. Those 3,200 inmates are not eligible to vote. Thus, the remaining 6,300 free residents of District 1 have greater access to their City Council representative — and more heavily weighted votes — than the 9,500 residents in each of the other five districts.
The problem grew, literally, in 2005. That year, the penitentiary complex added a third facility, nearly doubling the overall inmate population from 1,700 to 3,200. The prison lies entirely within District 1, meaning one-third of the district consisted of federal prisoners who cannot vote in the city elections.
Terre Haute’s prison-influenced imbalance was one of the nation’s most extreme cases, according to Peter Wagner, executive director of the nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative in East Hampton, Mass. Wagner commented and offered expertise on the local situation several times in response to a series of Tribune-Star columns and reports. In reaction to last week’s decision, Wagner said, “I think it’s great news that the Terre Haute City Council is going to avoid prison-based gerrymandering and give every resident of the city the same access to government, regardless of whether they live next to the federal prison.”
The city Legal Department will now draft new council boundaries, using the 2010 Census figures. The City Council would then vote on those revised borders. New districts must be in place by the end of this year. By removing the inmate count from the council district determinations, the city will still be able to include those prisoners in the overall population total. Under the Constitution, the decennial census counts inmates as residents of the prison town, rather than their hometowns.
Though the situation did not involve heated public debate, it needed to be addressed. One-person, one-vote should not just be a concept; it should be reality.