Hmm. Did you know that Clallam County locks up 57 percent of its African American population, Walla Walla County 58 percent, and Mason County a whopping 65 percent? Do those percentages seem impossibly high? Well they are, and it all gets back to our state’s policies regarding felons, and the way it distorts state and local politics.
The other day, when I wrote about WA’s felon disenfranchisement laws — which a New York Times editorial calls “morally outrageous” — I ignored the flip side to the political impact of felons: how situating prisons in rural areas exports both money and political power to these regions.
As Steve Zemke explains over at Majority Rules, the U.S. Census counts non-voting prisoners where they are incarcerated, rather than where they lived before imprisonment (and tend to return upon their release.) These census figures are used for drawing congressional and legislative district boundaries, resulting in over-representation in the rural areas where prisons tend to be situated, and under-representation in the urban areas from which the prison population is largely drawn. It also distorts the distribution of federal and state funds tied to population and demographics.
In Washington state and throughout the nation, non-voting prison populations essentially function as “phantom voters,” helping to increase the political clout of Republican-leaning rural districts, while decreasing the power of their urban counterparts. Indeed, researchers have found 21 counties nationally where at least 21 percent of so-called “residents” actually live behind bars.
That explains Mason County’s absurdly high African American incarceration rate; only a handful of these inmates are truly native to the county. In fact, Mason County’s permanent (though rotating) non-voting prison population inflates its census count by about 5 percent… essentially stealing both tax dollars and political power from the urban areas exporting the prisoners. Meanwhile, upon release, these prisoners return to their urban homes, impoverished and disenfranchised.
In opposing efforts to bring WA’s laws more in line with the rest of the nation by making it easier for ex-felons to regain the right to vote, Republicans like to spout moralistic homilies about doing the time if you do the crime, and stuff like that. But in truth, their stubborn support of the status quo is mostly based on their perception that it grants them a political advantage.
What we have now are social, economic, political and legal policies that, intentionally or not, work together to permanently disenfranchise minorities and other disadvantaged groups. We have structural social inequities that conspire to condemn whole segments of minority communities to near permanent underclass status. (How else to explain multigenerational pockets of poverty without resorting to racialist theories?) We have a so-called “war on drugs” that disproportionately imprisons minority and lower income citizens, felon voting laws that disproportionately disenfranchise minorities, and census and redistricting policies that distort the representational balance between urban and rural districts.
None of these policies, laws and institutions may have been devised with the purpose of granting Republicans an electoral advantage, but that clearly appears to be the result, and thus the state GOP will always oppose any reform they perceive might shift the balance the other way. And while the larger social injustice is certainly more egregious than mere partisan electoral inequities, it is the latter that makes the former so much more difficult to correct, for those who would benefit most from reform are those who have no voice.
When we imprison and disenfranchise an ever growing number of our urban citizens, it not only provides a direct economic benefit to the conservative-leaning rural districts where we locate our prisons, it also grants them an unfair electoral advantage by distorting the population figures used for redistricting. And one cannot understand the opposition to reforming our felon voting and other related laws, without understanding this simple political reality.