Opinion

In redistricting, Kansas legislators shouldn’t use prison populations as bargaining chips

October 23, 2021 3:33 am

While people can’t vote while incarcerated or on probation or parole, the Legislature still counts them for redistricting purposes — wherever they’re locked up. (Darrin Klimek/Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jesse Kielman is the communications and media manager at the ACLU of Kansas.

As school resumes and students fill history classrooms across the state, they’ll likely soon learn about one of the most egregious decisions in American history: the Three-fifths Compromise.

What they may not be learning is how Kansas is now poised to repeat it in the form of prison gerrymandering.

There’s a reason the Three-fifths Compromise’s moral failing resonates still, even above a slew of other racist and harmful policies in our history. Despite denying enslaved people civil rights, slave states demanded that these men, women and children be included in population counts because it increased their political power. This contradiction — denying people’s human rights, yet audaciously using their humanity as a chip to serve slave states politically — is a high water mark in evil.

This exploitation has resurfaced in recent redistricting efforts.

In Kansas, people cannot vote while incarcerated, on parole or on probation. Our Legislature still counts them in the redistricting process, but not how you may think: They bolster the population of the county where they are being held.

This doesn’t seem to be a flaw in the system, but an intentional feature. In 2011, lawmakers originally proposed district maps that squeezed 3 prisons — one federal, one state and one military — into a single Statehouse district, meaning most residents in that district would be ineligible to vote.

That meant that every four voters in that district would have the power of five voters anywhere else, built entirely on the backs of incarcerated people, themselves unable to vote.

This is Kansas’ Four-fifths Compromise.

This eerie historical echo becomes especially pronounced with context from the ACLU of Kansas’ Data for Justice project. Statistically, Kansans of color are vastly overrepresented in our prison system, and particularly, Black Kansans are overrepresented, at an incarceration rate 5.5 times their representation in the state population.

This is a problem that’s still growing here. Even though the national incarceration rate is slowing, Kansas’ incarceration rate continues to tick upward, only exacerbating the effect of prison gerrymandering.

Prison gerrymandering skews voting power by stripping political representation from urban communities of color and shipping it to the overwhelmingly white, rural areas that house Kansas prisons.

This census decision is nonsensical given the statistics released by Kansas Department of Corrections: 25% of residents stay in prison for a year or less, and nearly half for less than two years, with 98% returning to their home communities. If people typically spend only a year or two residing at the prison, how does it make sense to count them there in a map that’s used for a full decade?

In 2011, Kansas courts redrew maps to separate the three prisons into different districts, but already this go around, legislators aren’t showing a commitment to fair process or to fair maps. Even if we avoid another attempt at a prison-stuffed district, no one has raised any proposals to date that would address the much larger systemic harm caused by prison gerrymandering.

We cannot continue the legacy of the Three-fifths Compromise in this state.

Yes, we must stop skewed maps that pack prisons in a district, but we must address the foundational issue. The political rights of imprisoned people should remain with them for when they return home, not where they were locked up when once incarcerated.

Let’s help our state legislators understand that democracy is about the will of the people, and that starts with counting them where they belong — in their communities. This redistricting session is the time to put our foot down and put an end to not just the Four-fifths Compromise, but all prison gerrymandering in Kansas.

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Jesse Kielman
Jesse Kielman

Jesse Kielman is the communications and media manager at the ACLU of Kansas, where he works to advance systemic equality and Constitutional rights for all. Previously, Jesse did multimedia communications work for the largest labor union local in Michigan and served on the Bremer County (Iowa) Soil and Water Conservation Commission.

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