New York Republicans have won a slim majority in the State Senate partly via a quirk in the federal census that counts prisoners as residents of the rural districts where they are incarcerated, rather than of the urban neighborhoods where they last lived. A federal appeals court in New York has hinted that counting prisoners as upstaters might illegally dilute the voting rights of downstaters. Voting rights advocates estimate that without the inmates, as many as seven upstate Senate districts might have to be redrawn, with downstate picking up some seats.
When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected a lawsuit seeking to give prisoners the right to vote, it expressed interest in the argument that counting inmates upstate dilutes the voting power of minority groups in urban districts, and kicked that matter back to a trial court. The 8-to-5 appeals court decision opens a “small window,” said Juan Cartegena of the Community Service Society, which joined the appeal. Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based research and advocacy group, called the appeals court case “a significant signal that the New York’s reliance on bogus census counts of prisoners creates a serious problem for democracy. The court has given us a great opportunity.”