In the first lawsuit of its kind, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) won a key ruling Tuesday that allows a federal lawsuit challenging Connecticut’s so-called “prison gerrymandering” to proceed.
The NAACP, together with the NAACP Connecticut State Conference and individual NAACP members, argues the practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the legislative districts where they are held, rather than in their home districts is inherently discriminatory in a lawsuit that could have major implications for the 2020 election.
The complaint alleges that the practice violates Connecticut residents’ constitutional rights to one person-one vote by inflating the power of predominantly white rural districts, where many prisons are located, to the detriment of urban districts, where many incarcerated persons maintain a permanent residence.
In a majority of states (Maine and Vermont are the exceptions), individuals serving prison terms for felony convictions cannot vote–and in some cases may be subject to lifetime voting bans. Adding them to the population of jurisdictions where prisons are located gives disproportionate weight to those districts, the suit alleges.
“We want to equalize the voices of the people of Connecticut,” according to Alaa Chaker, a law student intern with the Yale Law School Rule of Law Clinic, counsel for the NAACP and other plaintiffs.
“Someone’s vote shouldn’t count more or less because of their proximity to a prison,” she said in an interview.
According to Chaker, the problem is Connecticut is very severe.
“The state’s facilities are especially dispersed far from home communities. We are confident about the unconstitutional nature of the practice and we are aware this is a part of a larger, broader movement to secure the equal representation for all.”
The suit, NAACP et al. v. Merrill, No. 3:18-cv-01094-WWE, was filed last June in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. Plaintiffs seek to compel Connecticut to adopt a new redistricting map that counts incarcerated individuals in their home state legislative districts rather than in the districts where they are incarcerated.
Significantly, prison gerrymandering disproportionately affects African Americans in CT, who are ten times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts.
“They’re using bodies of incarcerated people to inflate voting power of certain districts that are white and rural and taking away voting power of home districts of incarcerated people who are predominately African American and Latino,” Chaker said.
In his opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Warren Eginton emphasized that Connecticut’s districting plan might unconstitutionally compromise residents’ representation because of its “reliance upon total population census data when, by state law, incarcerated individuals are not even considered residents of their prison location,” as stated in a NAACP press release.
If the lawsuit is eventually successful, Connecticut would be the fifth state to end prison gerrymandering, following New York, Maryland, California and Delaware.
Chaker noted that the lawsuit comes at a time when there is a nation wide push for criminal justice reform, specifically surrounding mass incarceration.
The lawsuit is part of a broader effort to reduce the terrible consequences that have come from rise of mass incarceration, she said.
“Not only are incarcerated people siphoned off to prisons, but their political power in their home communities is siphoned off as well.”