Last updated on: 4/25/2008 | Author:

How Are Prisoners Counted for Voting and Congressional District Representation?

General Reference (not clearly pro or con)

The U.S. Census Bureau stated in its Feb. 21, 2006 report “Tabulating Prisoners at Their ‘Permanent Home of Record’ Address”:

“Congress directed the U.S. Census Bureau to study tabulating prisoners at the address of their ‘permanent home of record,’ rather than at their place of incarceration… The following uncertainties and challenges were identified:

– There is no generally agreed-upon definition of the concept ‘permanent home of record.’

– Address information for prisoners would need to be collected either through individual enumeration procedures or through access to administrative records…

– It is unclear how the Census Bureau can satisfy its legal obligation to report the whole number of persons in each State for Apportionment purposes if it tabulates prisoners at an address other than where they are confined.

– The estimated cost is $250 million…

Counting prisoners at a ‘permanent home of record’ address, rather at their place of incarceration, would result in increased cost both to the decennial census program and to the Federal, State, and local correctional facilities that would be required to participate in data collection effort. Our study raises concerns that this change would result in decreased accuracy for a possibly large proportion of millions of individuals confined on Census day.

The completeness of the census count would be compromised for prisoners that cannot provide a valid address, and we have no method of determining how many individuals would fall into that category. Further, a fundamental shift for the enumeration of correctional facilities would likely have a negative impact on other Group Quarters [residential facilities such as student dormatories and nursing homes] enumerations.”

Feb. 21, 2006 - Tabulating Prisoners at Their 'Permanent Home of Record' Address US Census Bureau

David Hamsher, JD, wrote in his Sep. 22, 2005 article “Counted Out Twice – Power, Representation & the ‘Usual Residence Rule’ in the Enumeration of Prisoners: A State-Based Approach to Correcting Flawed Census Data,” published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology:

“The American incarcerated population, 2,212,475 persons strong, is larger than the population of the fourth-largest city in the United States, commands a greater population than fifteen individual states, and contains more people than the three smallest states combined. If the incarcerated population of the United States were a state of its own, it would qualify for five Electoral College votes…

Ever since the first U.S. Census in 1790, the Census Bureau has used the concept of ‘usual residence’ to determine who lives in which state. The Census Bureau defines ‘usual residence’ as ‘the place where the person lives and sleeps most of the time. This place is not necessarily the same as the person’s voting residence or legal residence.’ This particular enumeration method comes neither from the U.S. Constitution nor from a federal statute, but rather from an administrative determination that such a rule would be an effective means of enumeration…

When the Census Bureau counts prisoners in the decennial census, it applies the ‘usual residence rule,’ and counts prisoners as residents of the prison in which they eat and sleep during the period of their incarceration. However, in most states the prisoners legally reside in the community in which they were arrested. The prisoners’ pre-incarceration community is normally the community in which they would use the services of their political representatives and where they would vote (were they able). Prior to 1970, this was not a significant problem, as the number of people behind bars was generally stable and not as significant as it is today.

However, since 1970, the U.S prison population has grown more than 600%, and continues its torrid growth. Much of the growth in prison facilities has been in rural areas, while the majority of inmates come from urban areas. Thus, an increasing number of people are counted by the Census Bureau as residents of communities that do not reflect their true, legal homes. As a result, a smaller permanent resident population in the rural, prisoner-hosting communities elects representatives than in those urban communities that tend to export prisoners. This means that prisoner-exporting communities experience a dilution of their relative voting power, while prisoner-importing communities experience a corresponding strengthening of their relative voting power.”

Sep. 22, 2005 - Counted Out Twice - Power, Representation & the 'Usual Residence Rule' in the Enumeration of Prisoners: A State-Based Approach to Correcting Flawed Census Data David A. Hamsher, JD

The Secretary of State of Maine, one of two states that permits inmates to vote while incarcerated in prison or jail, stated in its website section “Information on Voter Eligibility in Maine,” (accessed Aug. 7, 2007):

“The residence of a person incarcerated in a correctional facility or in a county jail does not include the municipality where a person is incarcerated unless the person had resided in that municipality prior to incarceration.

A person incarcerated in a correctional facility may apply to register to vote in any municipality where that person has previously established a fixed and principal home to which the person intends to return.”

Aug. 7, 2007 - Maine Secretary of State

The Secretary of State of Vermont, one of two states that permits inmates to vote while incarcerated in prison or jail, stated in its website section “Register to Vote: Frequently Asked Questions,” (accessed Aug. 7, 2007):

“If you are serving in the military, attending an educational institution, in a nursing home or health care facility, in prison, or living abroad, the Vermont statutes allow you to keep your residency for voting purposes and remain on the checklist in the town in which you resided. If you are in the military, once you leave the service or return to the United States, you may establish a new residency for voting purposes. However, you cannot apply to be added to the checklist in a different town in Vermont until you physically return and establish your principal dwelling place in a different town.”

Aug. 7, 2007 - Vermont Secretary of State