Prison advocacy groups say the U.S. Department of Census methods to count Ohio’s prisoner population leaves urban populations underrepresented.
The department counts prisoners as part of the populations of communities where they are incarcerated and not as part of populations of the communities where they originate. Ohio uses Census data to draw its legislative boundaries to comply with the 14th Amendment’s principle of equal representation – one person/one vote.
The Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy group on incarceration policy, released the first report detailing the effects of the department’s method of counting incarcerated individuals.
The report claims the department’s method is tilting the scales away from Ohio’s urban communities and toward Ohio’s rural communities. In effect, Ohio’s urban communities are underrepresented.
“It skews all of our important tools that we use to plan our democracy and society,” said Peter Wagner, co-author of the report, said. “The number of incarcerated individuals has grown significantly over the last 20 years. There’s a big disparity in where they come from and where they live.”
According to the report, the department’s methods systematically affect the population counts of communities throughout Ohio, changing the electoral balance.
The majority of the prison population are residents of urban areas; however, the majority of prisons in Ohio are located in rural areas. All of Ohio’s urban areas saw a reduction in 2000 Census population.
“There are 44,000 people in Ohio’s prisons, but there are more than 11,000 from Cleveland, more than 5,000 from Cincinnati, and more than 4,000 from Columbus,” Wagner said.
“It has disproportionate effects on the black community,” Wagner said. “More than half of the population is black, but they are still part of their communities. It dilutes the strength of black votes in Ohio. They are credited to white rural areas.”
“If we didn’t count them this way, where would we count them?” said Census Bureau spokeswoman Karen Mills. “There is no guarantee that they will return to their place or origin.”
In Ross, Pickaway, and Fayette counties, 9 percent of House District 85 constituents are prisoners.
“We have a lot of folks who work in the prisons – a lot of good folks,” said Rep. John Schlicter, R-Fayette, said. “It’s an asset to our community. It would be interesting to see how many would actually go back and vote.”
Upon incarceration, individuals are disenfranchised. However, upon release, their right to vote is reinstated and they typically return to the community from which they came.
“Prisoners do draw on the resources of the community water (and) electricity, and prisoners are staffed by the local labor force where they live and sleep,” Mills said. “The Census’s concern is that we count them once and in the right place.”