Prison towns can wield disproportionate local political clout in the New York counties that count inmates as constituents, says a study from the advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative reported by the Associated Press. The group identified 15 counties plus New York City that rely on census tallies including prisoners when they draw lines for county legislative districts or weight the votes for county boards of supervisors. Critics contend that the practice of counting state and federal prisoners, who cannot vote, as local residents creates “phantom constituents” and gives undue political power to places with prisons. The effect can be especially acute in sparsely populated rural counties.
The report found five counties with districts that consisted of at least 20 percent prisoners. Report author Peter Wagner said, “It allows certain parts of counties to dominate the future of their counties.” For example, 62 percent of the residents counted by the census in the Livingston County town of Groveland are incarcerated. That means every four residents there have the same say over county affairs as 10 residents elsewhere in the county.