Is prison gerrymandering the new three-fifths compromise?

By Jamelle Bouie

The NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund excoriates prison-based gerrymandering in a new report:

As the report details, most states and local governments count incarcerated persons as residents of the prison communities where they are housed when drawing election district lines, even though they are not residents of those communities and have no opportunity to build meaningful ties there.


The United States Constitution requires that election districts must be roughly equal in size, so that everyone is represented equally in the political process. This requirement, known as the “one person, one vote” principle, is undermined by prison-based gerrymandering.

Prison-based gerrymandering results in stark racial disparities as well. African Americans are nearly 13% of the general population, but are 41.3% of the federal and state prison population. But incarcerated persons are often held in areas that are far removed, both geographically and demographically, from their home communities. Thus, prison-based gerrymandering not only weakens the political strength of communities of color, it is also eerily reminiscent of the infamous “three-fifths compromise,” which enabled Southern states to amplify their political power by counting enslaved and disfranchised African Americans as amongst their constituents.

I’ve never understood the rationale behind denying felons their right to vote. Yes, felon have broken the law, but they haven’t forfeited their citizenship, and they entitled to the rights granted to them as citizens, which includes voting. What’s more, by keeping prisoners outside of the political process, we make it that much more difficult to reform the prison system in any meaningful way. After all, if prisoners can’t vote, why should they matter?


That said, no discussion of felon disenfranchisement laws should go without mentioning that these laws were originally conceived as a way to keep blacks from voting. The fact that these laws disenfranchise a significant number of African-Americans isn’t an accident, and it’s ridiculous that they are allowed to stand given their hugely disproportionate impact on black people.

I would add too that felon disenfranchisement is yet another part of the criminal justice system that it makes it virtually impossible for former felons to reintegrate into mainstream life. Once out of prison, former inmates are also subject to hiring discrimination, housing restrictions, and harsh stigmas, all of which work together to keep a large — and growing — class of black men completely disconnected from mainstream society. There’s a good reason for why recidivism rates are astronomically high among black males released from prison. With few social supports and little opportunity, formerly incarcerated African-American men are far more likely to return to crime.