The state of Michigan is currently in the process of redistricting, which has sparked debate over how to count the state’s approximately 38,000 incarcerated individuals. The question is whether incarcerated people should be counted as residents of the districts they resided in prior to being incarcerated versus where their prisons are located, which are typically rural communities.
Historically, Michigan has counted incarcerated individuals as residents of the district in which the prison is located. This process started in earnest in the 1970s alongside the War on Drugs and implementation of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which led to a spike in the prison population and disproportionately impacted people of color. Opponents of this policy claim that the process artificially inflates rural populations in a process they call “prison gerrymandering.”
Many incarcerated individuals in Michigan are from the city of Detroit but are placed in facilities located in Ionia or Jackson counties. As a result, the proportion of representation allocated to Wayne County decreases, while other districts gain thousands more residents.
Rackham student David Helps, chair of the Graduate Employees’ Organization Abolition Caucus, said he believes there are strong political and philosophical reasons to support the counting of prisoners in the communities they resided in before incarceration.
“I think if you were to ask most prisoners if they identify strongly with the community surrounding where they’re incarcerated, I think you’d find that they don’t,” Helps said. “But at a political level and philosophical level, we’ve seen how the counting of prisoners in the communities in which they’re incarcerated — which in Michigan, like in other states — tends to be rural communities, mostly white communities. (This) really skews (the) portrait of where people live and where people vote in Michigan.”
LSA senior Noah Streng, president of the University of Michigan’s chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America, said prison gerrymandering was founded on the basis of oppression and has been used by those in power to diminish the voices of people of color across Michigan.
“The way that prison gerrymandering is set up is very much a relic of Jim Crow segregation where you have a majority Black population who are incarcerated in prisons, who are denied their rights to votes, and then forcibly removed from their homes and taken into prison complexes in often white rural communities,” Streng said. “By being counted in those communities — even though they’re not allowed to vote in the communities — these white communities get more representation … giving (them) more power to continuing this white supremacist cycle.”
Edward Woods, spokesman for the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, told The Detroit News that the redistricting commission will count the prison population based on where the prison is located, as only the U.S. Congress or state legislature are able to renegotiate how prison populations are counted.
State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, told The Detroit News that he believes if Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) issued an opinion, the commission may feel they have more power to change their approach to redistricting.
“It’s a real voting rights issue when a vote in one district counts more than a vote in another district,” Irwin said. “When you allow prisons to skew the populations of these districts to the tune of thousands of people, that can have an influence on the political power of the state.”
Helps said he was not surprised that Woods and others have fallen back on the argument that the commission does not have the power to change the way incarcerated people are counted during the redistricting process.
“I think Senator Irwin is probably right to say that this is maybe, at the very least, a gray area, and I’d like to see the redistricting commission feel empowered to at least take up the question and consider the different local laws that are on the books and case law around this and whether or not this is something that is within their power,” Helps said.
Streng added that lawmakers should take steps to dismantle prison gerrymandering and mass incarceration because they specifically target minority groups. According to Streng, people opposed to changing the way prison populations are counted have put up barriers to representation for vulnerable populations.
“I think that in moments like these, inaction is not acceptable and that what is right must be prioritized,” Streng said. “I think it’s a matter of lack of political will by those in power who are willing to just let this crime against humanity continue.”
John VanDeventer, Nessel’s chief legal counsel, announced in mid-September that the Department of the Attorney General will not be issuing an opinion on prison gerrymandering in the redistricting process, despite Irwin’s requests for Nessel take a stance on the issue.
Irwin told The Detroit News he was disappointed in the decision, as a comment from Nessel would help the issue gain traction.During the process of redistricting, the fairness of laws prohibiting incarcerated people from voting have also been called into question.
Incarcerated individuals in the state of Michigan are not allowed to vote, which has disproportionately affected people of color.
As of 2020, 5.17 million people in the United States experienced voter disenfranchisement due to a felony conviction, with one in 16 Black people of voting age not able to vote.
LSA junior Julia Schettenhelm, communications director of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, told The Daily in an email that the organization supports not only changing redistricting laws, but also providing the right to vote to incarcerated people.
“We support voting rights for incarcerated people and believe that their votes should be counted for the communities where they are from,” Schettenhelm wrote. “More specifically, we believe that it is not just to use the personhood of marginalized people to determine the districts where they have been placed rather than the areas where they normally live.”
The University’s chapter of College Republicans declined to comment when contacted by The Daily.
In the state of Michigan, formerly incarcerated people are automatically given the right to vote after being released from prison, including while on parole or probation. However, there are also laws that make access to a ballot difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals.
In June, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a number of bills mandating identification for in-person voting. Under these laws, voters would no longer be able to sign an affidavit to confirm their identity if they do not have an ID on hand. Under this bill, an individual would only be allowed to formally vote once they filled out a provisional ballot and showed a valid form of ID within six days.
Voter identification laws have been shown to decrease voter participation because some voters face challenges in obtaining a state-issued ID. This is especially true for formerly incarcerated individuals, who are generally lower-income and often cannot afford to obtain the documents necessary for an ID.
Activist groups have protested voter ID laws and worked to make the voting process easier for formerly incarcerated people, as well as gain voting rights for currently incarcerated people.
Streng stressed the value of ensuring that every person has a voice in a democratic society. But he also said the way in which incarceration has been used as a weapon to target marginalized communities has prevented them from fighting for their rights.
“In a country that claims to be a democracy, we have millions of our people who are denied the right to vote simply because they’ve been incarcerated,” Streng said. “Incarceration in the United States is not just about losing your right to bodily autonomy, safety, freedom of expression, but it’s also about losing your political rights – your right to have a voice in the democratic decisions of your country.”
Daily Staff Reporter Kate Weiland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.