The city of Cranston, Rhode Island is divided into six electoral wards, and a vote cast in Cranston’s first five wards counts only about three quarters as much as a vote cast in the sixth ward, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by attorneys from Demos, the Prison Policy Initiative and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The origin of this problem is a state prison located in Ward 6. According to the lawsuit, the bulk of the inmates at this prison are disenfranchised because they are incarcerated due to a felony conviction. The remainder are permitted to vote via absentee ballot in the community they lived in prior to their incarceration, but may not vote in Cranston’s Ward 6 unless that is where they previously lived. Yet, when Cranston drew its voting district lines for the six wards, the prisoners were counted as residents of Ward 6 even though the overwhelming majority of them cannot even cast a ballot in that ward.
The result is that “without the incarcerated population, Ward 6 has only 10,209 true constituents. Yet those constituents now wield the same political power as the roughly 13-14,000 constituents in each of the other wards.”
The lawsuit argues that this arrangement violates the Constitution’s promise of equality. As the Supreme Court held in its landmark “one person, one vote” case, the right to equality under the law includes the right to have your vote count the same as anyone else’s vote. This is why states or localities cannot draw legislative districts with significant differences in population — because if one legislative district has 5,000 people and another one has 10,000 people, but they both only get one representative, then votes in the first district effectively count twice as much as votes in the second.