Today, like many days, is a good day to ask: Who gets to be President and how? As we celebrate George Washington’s birthday—President’s Day—let us remember that about 1 in 4 of those presidents we celebrate were involved in slavery and human trafficking. Many of the people GW and his cohort have presided over were not even counted as people. And you know what? It’s still a problem.
(care of the Prison Gerrymandering Project)
Every ten years, United States Census workers fan the country to track, amongst other things, population shifts inside and between our 50 states. Our founding fathers intended to use the Census to maintain equal representation and electoral balance with decennial Congressional redistricting. Today, redistricting is more blood sport than political exercise (unless you think the two are closely akin). Today, redistricting is more about staying just this side of legal to gain political partisanship, and less about the demographic realities of our country (see Robert Draper’s excellent 2012 article in The Atlantic).
Take, for instance, the problem of prison gerrymandering. The Census Bureau counts prisoners as residents of the towns where they are imprisoned, thus giving extra political power to legislators who preside over districts containing prisoners. More prisons = more political power. Most prisons are located in rural areas, and most prisoners come from urban areas. By systematically relocating people in prisons you also systematically relocate political clout from urban to rural areas. Not only do you increase political power for politicians who preside over prison districts, you dilute the power of all the other non-prison districts. In our hometown of Chicago, this means that 60% of Illinois’ prisoners are from Cook County, but 99% of them are counted as rural residents.
(care of the ACLU)
Felony disenfranchisement is a huge problem: An estimated 6.1 million voting-age Americans who have been convicted of crimes were restricted from voting in our last presidential election. (That’s roughly 2.5% of the voting population—1 of every 40 adults.) Not only are we barring many citizens from voting, but we’re also counting their possible votes in all the wrong places. The weight of history and human decency dictates that we stop counting some citizens as people and others as less than. And instead of counting–literally counting–people as bodies warehoused in one place, let us recognize them as residents of the communities that almost all of them will return to and call home.