Sunday, February 5, 2012

Federal Lawsuit Faults Ohio for Disfranchising Thousands of Eligible Voters

CINCINNATI, OH - August 17 - The Prison Reform Advocacy Center (PRAC) filed suit in federal court today in an effort to remedy the disfranchisement of thousands of eligible voters statewide. The suit asks that 100,000 people with felony convictions in Ohio be given immediate notice of their voting rights so they can register before the October 4th deadline for the November 2, 2004 election.
Ohio law gives people with felony convictions the right to vote once released from incarceration, regardless of whether they are on parole, probation, or any other form of community supervision. A study released by PRAC two weeks ago, available at, found that Ohio elections officials’ knowledge of this law varies widely by region. Specifically, PRAC found that twenty-one boards of election, including the one located in Cincinnati, tell eligible voters that they cannot vote while on probation or parole.
While the number of people with felony convictions who have been misinformed regarding their voting rights is unknown, PRAC’s study conservatively estimated that 20% of the 34,000 Ohioans currently on community supervision, or approximately 7,000 people, have been harmed. To correct the problem PRAC proposes that all people with previous felony convictions released from prison during the past five years, approximately 100,000 individuals, be provided accurate notice of how, where and by when to register for the November 2nd election.
“The relief we propose is the only way to ensure that all people with felony convictions who have been harmed receive timely and accurate information about their voting rights. We are asking that the court act quickly because time is of the essence,” said David Singleton, PRAC’s Executive Director. “This segment of voters in Ohio could very well make the difference in this year’s presidential race,” Singleton added.
"The Ohio survey proves that people are losing their right to vote every day by receiving misinformation from officials who do not understand the law," said Deborah Goldberg, Democracy Program Director at the Brennan Center for Justice. "To make democracy a reality, officials in Ohio must cure their mistakes and help to educate voters about their rights--as they have begun to do in New York, where a similar survey demonstrated similar problems."
The Brennan Center is part of the Right to Vote Campaign, a national effort dedicated to ending felony disfranchisement laws which deny the right to vote to 4.7 million Americans, overwhelmingly African American and including over 500,000 veterans and almost 700,000 women (
PRAC filed the suit on behalf of C.U.R.E.–Ohio and the Racial Fairness Project, grassroots organizations active in registering former Ohio felons to vote. The complaint names Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell and 21 County of Boards of Elections, including the Hamilton County Board of Election.

Common Dreams NewsCenter is a non-profit news service
providing breaking news and views for the Progressive Community.
The press release posted here has been provided to Common Dreams NewsWire by one of the many progressive organizations who make up America's Progressive Community. If you wish to comment on this press release or would like more information, please contact the organization directly.
*all times Eastern US (GMT-5:00)
AUGUST 17, 2004
11:26 AM CONTACT: Prison Reform Advocacy Center
David Singleton, (513) 421-110

Prison based gerrymandering

Prison-based gerrymandering's striking resemblance to the infamous three-fifths clause
by Leah Sakala, September 9, 2011 gerrymandering's striking resemblance to the infamous three-fifths clause
by Leah Sakala, September 9, 2011

I was recently watched some striking footage of a Wisconsin Assembly hearing from September, 2009, about Assembly Joint Resolution 63 to exclude incarcerated persons from redistricting data. The video begins with a discussion of how to count incarcerated people in Wisconsin, but then quickly turns into a heated debate about how prison-based gerrymandering relates to our nation’s conflicted history with the concepts of person hood and equal representation. To me, the fact the conversation veered into such fundamental questions shows how sometimes the solutions to prison-based gerrymandering can be counter intuitive.
Here’s why:
When incarcerated people are counted as residents of the district in which they are incarcerated, the actual residents of that district get undue additional political clout and the voters who live everywhere else lose out. The ideal solution is to completely solve the problem by counting incarcerated people at their home addresses. But, although it may sound strange at first, the second best option is for incarcerated populations to be removed from redistricting data altogether. The video I watched was about this second approach. Wisconsin 2009 Assembly Joint Resolution 63 sponsored by Representative Fred Kessler proposed to remove prison counts from Wisconsin’s redistricting data.
But this idea didn’t sit well with Representative Kleefisch. Given the United States racially disproportionate incarceration rates and pernicious history of denying racial minorities their civil rights, he asked, doesn’t the proposal to exclude prisoners from redistricting counts hark back to the infamous practice of denying certain individuals their full personhood?
The problem with the three-fifths clause was that slave populations were used to artificially inflate the political power of the very same people who went to great lengths to deny them their right to personal sovereignty, much less their right to vote
Representative Kelda Helen Roys responded to this question by drawing an apt historical connection to the infamous 1787 constitutional clause that counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of Congressional redistricting, even though they were denied the right to vote. The three-fifths clause had the effect of using slave population numbers to artificially beef up the political power of the Southern, white, property-owning voters who were invested in maintaining and expanding the slave system. But the problem with the three-fifths clause wasn’t that the slaves were counted as only a fraction of a person. After all, since their “political clout” went right into the hands of the very people who exploited them, the political distortion would have been even greater had they been counted as full people. The problem was that slave populations were used to artificially inflate the political power of the very same people who went to great lengths to deny them their right to personal sovereignty, much less their right to vote.
When a government engages in prison-based gerrymandering, incarcerated people, who disproportionately come from minority and urban communities, are stripped of their right to vote but still included in the population counts of the disproportionately white districts in which they are incarcerated. Their political clout is essentially handed through the bars to the real residents of the community that contains the prison, giving certain people more political say simply by virtue of their residential proximity to a large prison. This also gives the legislators who represent districts that include prisons the power to use incarcerated people’s bodies to count against their own interests by supporting punitive criminal justice legislation, as such representatives are utterly free from accountability to their non-voting “constituents” behind bars.
It’s just as unfair as it sounds. And Representative Roys’s observation about the connection between prison-based gerrymandering and the three-fifths clause isn’t abstract history. Let’s look at a contemporary example.
New York State Senator Nozzolio represents the 54th senate district, which includes several large prisons. Senator Nozzolio has a long history of opposing the New York bill that ended prison-based gerrymandering, insisting that the people incarcerated within his district are unquestionably his constituents. But does he make an effort to ensure that his so-called constituents in prison have a say in the legislature? Not quite. “I haven’t really focused on [prisoners],” he stated, admitting that he is far more attentive to the needs of the people who work in prisons than the people who are incarcerated in them. In fact, Nozzolio was a staunch opponent of the successful movement to overturn New York’s harmful and unpopular Rockefeller drug laws, which had resulted in locking up unprecedented numbers of non-violent offenders for long amounts of time. Perhaps Senator Nozzolio would not have felt so strongly about keeping the draconian Rockefeller drug policies if they hadn’t been responsible for importing a sizable portion of his “constituents.”
But thankfully it’s not always true that legislators with prisons in their districts feel so comfortable helping themselves to imported political clout.
Senator Pugh and Delegate Pena-Melnyk of Maryland, for example, both represent districts with large prisons. But unlike Senator Nozzolio, Senator Pugh and Delegate Pena-Melnyk recognized the problem of prison-based gerrymandering and were the lead sponsors of the successful 2010 legislation that ended prison-based gerrymandering in Maryland.
Taking incarcerated people out of redistricting data entirely is ultimately preferable to allowing their representational clout to be handed over to the wrong community.
So, when Wisconsin Representative Kessler proposed to exclude prison populations for redistricting purposes, his goal was to stop granting unwarranted political clout to districts that contain prisons. Taking incarcerated people out of redistricting data entirely is ultimately preferable to counting them as residents of the prisons in which they’re incarcerated and allowing their representational clout to be handed over to the wrong community. But, ideally, Wisconsin and other states with prison-based gerrymandering problems would take a tip from states like New York and Maryland and pass statewide legislation to ensure that incarcerated people are counted in the right place: their home communities.
Comments (1)
One Response
1. Dan Dick says, 2 days, 10 hours after publication:
Liked the historical analogy, and calling attention to legislators with a conflict of interest due to “imported political clout.” Great image of prisoners’ political clout being “handed through the bars to the real residents of the community.” That would make an effective editorial cartoon.