When Talladega City Councilman Joseph Ballow goes up for re-election, he can be sure that more than a quarter of the residents in his ward won't show up at the polls — because they're behind bars.

One of five councilmen in this city of approximately 16,000, Ballow represents a 3,121-person ward that includes Talladega Federal Correctional Institution, a prison with 939 inmates.  

"They can't vote, they can't carry a firearm, and I'm not interested in being their representative," Ballow said.

Ballow isn't alone. As the nation’s prison population has burgeoned in recent decades — there were about 2.2 million Americans in prison or jail in 2012, around twice the number jailed 25 years ago — some political districts are becoming packed with inmates. They often count toward the total population when district lines are being drawn, but in most cases, they can't vote.

That phenomenon has been a matter of growing concern for some prison reform advocates, who see the potential for "prison gerrymandering" — the use of prisoners to beef up the numbers when political districts are redrawn.

"We think of one person, one vote as the rule, " said Aleks Kajstura, legal director for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit group that advocates for a new way of districting prisons. "But when you pad out the population with inmates, you're giving people in some parts of the country more political power than others."

Shifting the center

For decades, the Census bureau has counted inmates as residents of the communities where they are incarcerated. Those numbers were used to calculate population for redistricting purposes.

Few complained, when the numbers of incarcerated Americans was relatively small. The growth of the prison population, Kajstura says, is creating a shift in political representation. Cities produce more prisoners, but those inmates are often incarcerated in rural areas, boosting the population numbers there — even though most states, including Alabama, don't allow felons to vote.

The trend doesn't bother state Rep. Berry Forte, D-Eufaula.

District 84, where Forte lives, had a nearly 50-50 mix of black and white voters when Forte was last elected in 2010. Now, after post-census redistricting, it's 54 percent black, he said.

"I'd hoped for a lot more," Forte said.

But many of the people in that district won't be voters. District 84 is home to three state prisons — Ventress, Easterling and Bullock — with a total population of 4,797. With about 47,000 people in each House district, that means approximately 10 percent of Forte’s constituents are inmates.

Still, Forte said he wasn't worried about the effect the prisons — which were in the district before 2010 — have on the balance of voters. Nor was state Sen. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton, whose district covers the same prisons that are in Forte's district.

"Honestly, with turnout as low as it is, I don't think it makes much difference," Beasley said.

The architect of Alabama's post-2010 redistricting plan, Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, said the state did the best it could with the numbers it has.

"You have to count them somewhere," Dial said of the prison inmates.

Dial noted that the redistricting plan was cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice before it went into effect, something Alabama had to do under the Voting Rights Act. The pre-clearance requirement was established to keep areas with a history of voter discrimination from using redistricting to dilute the influence of black voters.

That pre-clearance requirement was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, in response to a lawsuit by Shelby County.

"Next time, they'll have to do it without the Voting Rights Act, but that won't be until 2020," he said.

Boon or burden?

Alabama may not be able to wait until 2020 to redraw district lines, however. A group of Democratic lawmakers has sued to get Dial's redistricting map thrown out. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear the case later this year.

The lawsuit alleges that the redistricting plan packs black voters into a few safely Democratic districts, cutting off their chance to influence other districts.

James Blacksher, attorney for the Democratic lawmakers, said the group looked at the role of prisons in the redistricting plan.

"Our demographer did look at the incarcerated population," he said. "There were no districts where it seemed to make a large difference in terms of the black-white breakdown."

Blacksher said the prison issue could come up in a new round of redistricting if the high court throws out the district map.

Cities draw their own district lines, which means Talladega’s Ballow will have to wait until after 2020 to get the inmates out of his ward. He said he's worried that the federal government will push to allow felons the right to vote — something that would flood his ward with inmate voters.

"The attorney general is trying to shove this down our throats," Ballow said.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder did say in a February speech that he believed states should restore the voting rights of ex-felons, but only after they leave prison. In Alabama, ex-inmates can apply to have their voting rights restored, but it doesn't happen automatically.

The inmate ratio in Ballow’s district could have been higher, according to officials at Alabama State University, which did Talladega’s latest redistricting.

The federal prison stands next to a federal work camp with 381 inmates. Both are within Ward 5, according to the city’s ward maps, but the Census Bureau counted those inmates as living in a census tract just outside the ward, ASU officials say.

City and state officials say Talladega politicians typically see the prison as a burden.

"The question has always been, 'Do we have to take it?,'" said Dawn Landholm, principal planner for the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, which has drawn district lines for many local cities, including Talladega’s ward lines after the 2000 Census.  

Landholm said council members tend to feel cheated if they get a district that doesn't include lots of actual registered voters. Council members have often asked if they can count only the voting-age population in drawing districts, she said.

"We've had to tell them they can't just draw the district around voters," Landholm said. "You have to take everybody."

Changing the count

In recent years, four states — California, Delaware, Maryland and New York — passed laws that allow redistricting officials to use adjusted counts to consider inmates as residents of the cities where they lived before their arrest. Other states require local governments to ignore prison populations in drawing district lines.

The Prison Policy Initiative has been asking for a bigger change. They want the Census Bureau itself to change the way it counts inmates, clearing up the issue for all states. In congressional hearings last year, bureau director John Thompson indicated that change wasn't off the table in the plans for the 2020 Census.

Talladega City Manager Brian Muenger said he’s heard of other cities that discount the inmate population when drawing districts. He said he’d be open to proposing a similar option for Talladega.

“If there’s evidence that it does distort the process, I’d consider it,” Muenger said.

 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.