Minnesota Just Became The Latest State to Eliminate Prison Gerrymandering

A new law will end the practice of counting incarcerated people where prisons are located, which skews political power within the state.

Alex Burness   |    May 22, 2024

Minnesota State Capitol Building (iStock/ReDunnLev)

In 2010, ahead of the decennial redistricting process, Minnesota’s legislature considered adopting a bold reform: It would stop counting state prisoners as residents of the districts where they were incarcerated, and instead count them as residents of the districts from which they hailed before prison. At the time, this was a fairly novel idea; only two states had taken a similar step.

The proposed reform would have ended what is known as prison gerrymandering, which distorts census counts by inflating population totals where prisons are located—typically rural, politically conservative areas—and lowering them in the places prisoners come from, disproportionately communities of color in urban centers. But Minnesota lawmakers rejected the change in 2010, which, as ever, gave extra political clout to prison communities. After that year’s redistricting cycle, the Prison Policy Initiative found that at least five county and municipal districts in the state had their populations inflated by at least 16 percent, by counting state prisoners, who cannot vote, as local residents.

Minnesota lawmakers again considered fixing this ahead of the 2020 redistricting cycle, and again failed to approve two different legislative proposals, leaving the skewed counts intact on its current political maps. By that cycle, prison gerrymandering bans had become more common, with more than a dozen states adopting reforms in time to affect maps redrawn after the 2020 census. (In addition to states that ended prison gerrymandering in time for the 2020 cycle, Maine and Illinois have also passed bans that will apply for the first time during the 2030 cycle.)

After 14 years of deliberation, Minnesota finally got on board last week: Democratic Governor Tim Walz signed into law a ban on prison gerrymandering in the state. The reform is part of an omnibus elections finance and policy bill that contains other provisions meant to protect voting rights and expand ballot access in general.

Unlike in the immediate leadup to the 2010 and 2020 censuses, when no party enjoyed full control of the state government in Minnesota, Democrats now have a legislative trifecta in the state thanks to their gains in the 2022 midterms, which they’ve already used to reverse the political exclusion of some Minnesotans with criminal convictions. They needed every bit of that power to get this new reform passed: The omnibus bill cleared the state Senate on a party-line 34-33 vote, and passed the state House by a vote of 69-62, with every Democratic member, plus one Republican, in support.  

“We wanted to pass it now, just to make sure that we could be ready for 2030,” Democratic state Representative Esther Agbaje, who championed the prison gerrymandering ban, told Bolts. “This gives time for our secretary of state office and for our counties to get ready to do that count.”

The secretary of state and top Minnesota elections official, Democrat Steve Simon, was appreciative that lawmakers gave the state a long runway to implement the change: “I really am glad this is under consideration now, in a year ending in four,” he told a state legislative committee in March. “When you start talking about redistricting issues in years that end in eight, nine, or zero, it tends to get more political.” 

In terms of raw numbers, the impact of this reform can appear marginal: Minnesota has a population of almost 6 million people, of which some 8,000, or 0.1 percent, are incarcerated in state prisons. Minnesota’s move will apply to local, state, and congressional redistricting, and, in that latter category, the shift in political power will be especially small; U.S. House districts each represent close to a million people.

At the state level, however, the change is easier to spot. The Prison Policy Initiative, which publishes research on and advocates against prison gerrymandering, reports that three different Minnesota state legislative districts count prisoners for at least 4 percent of their populations.

The distortion of prison gerrymandering can be particularly stark at the local level. PPI reported that in 2013, one district in Waseca, a small Minnesota town with a state prison, counted prisoners for 35 percent of its population. 

PPI spokesperson Mike Wessler told Bolts that elsewhere in the country, incarcerated people who cannot vote comprise up to 13 percent of the population in state legislative districts. In some local jurisdictions with prisons, he said, incarcerated people count for up to 80 percent of the population.

Skewing census counts in this way, Wessler argued, “creates a pretty twisted incentive for the people who represent prisons in the legislature to keep those prisons and prison communities full, and maybe even make them fuller. The fuller they are, the louder voice those communities have in government.”

In states with prison gerrymandering, this boosting of political power in prison communities dilutes representation in many of the places where higher portions of the population are incarcerated. Data show people rarely are incarcerated in their home communities, and that holds true for many Minnesotans: The Twin Cities metro is home to some 60 percent of Minnesotans, but several of the largest state prisons are located in small towns far from that area. 

The geographic skew most acutely affects Black Minnesotans, who comprise about 7 percent of the state population and 35 percent of its prison population. The vast majority of Minnesota’s Black population calls the Twin Cities area home.

“These prisons are often built way out in the rural communities, and the very communities where harm may have happened are harmed yet again,” Elizer Darris, an advocate for criminal justice reform, who previously served time in multiple Minnesota prisons, told Bolts. “You leave the pain here, but you put the dollars there. It’s very undemocratic and predatory.”

Darris was closely involved in a 2023 Democrat-led reform in Minnesota to restore voting rights to about 50,000 people serving terms of parole or probation. But imprisoned Minnesotans still cannot vote, and that reality, along with prison gerrymandering, has left politicians who represent prison communities with little reason to view incarcerated people as constituents, Darris says.

“It kind of has hallmarks back to the three-fifths Compromise,” he added. “Despite the fact that we weren’t able to vote, our bodies were being counted.”

He recalled his time incarcerated at the Stillwater prison on the outskirts of the Twin Cities area. It was punishingly hot inside that prison, he said, and so he reached out to local officials about the problem.

“The walls were sweating,” Darris said, “The representatives never represented us. There were plenty of times I wrote to the local state rep or the mayor, and absolutely none of them ever intervened. They did not see themselves as representing us despite the fact that the prison was inside their community, and the issues we were complaining about were in their community.”

Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, director of the Minnesota branch of the national advocacy organization Common Cause, told Bolts that previous efforts to end prison gerrymandering failed because politicians from both major parties were glad to keep counting prisoners in their districts, even if those politicians made little effort to represent prisoner interests.

“Power doesn’t like to give up power easily,” she said, reflecting on why this reform struggled for so long in Minnesota. “The resistance came from people who asked why we’d need to reform something that works. My question is: Who does it work for? It may work for the political parties, but not for constituents.” 

This argument is evidently an easier sell in states where Democrats hold power. Save for Montana, no red state has yet adopted a reform similar to Minnesota’s, which leaves prison gerrymandering intact in most of the country. 

Wessler told Bolts that the U.S. Census Bureau could end these state-level debates by changing its policy of counting people in prison as residents of the facilities in which they are held. The agency has so far declined to do that, though it has blessed the efforts of individual states that want to undo prison gerrymandering, and has even published data to help facilitate those changes. 

Absent federal action, the project of dismantling prison gerrymandering remains incremental.

Agbaje, the Minnesota lawmaker who sponsored this year’s reform, said she hopes the change her state has made will encourage government officials to rethink how they view people held in custody. 

“You shouldn’t be counted where you lay your head, as a prisoner. You’re there involuntarily,” she said. “I think this really with our efforts to make sure that people look at prisoners, and the formerly incarcerated, as whole people.”

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