A federal district court handed down a memorandum and order for summary judgment in Davidson v. City of Cranston, a case concerning “prison gerrymandering” in Rhode Island. The court concluded that the city improperly drew districts that included all of the incarcerated individuals in a prison into a single district, distorting representation and voting strength in other districts.
One might have concluded that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Evenwel v. Abbott mandated this case come out the other way. There, the Court permitted Texas to use total population in drawing its districts, even if it included non-citizens (i.e., non-voters) in its population base. Had the case come out the other way and some voter- or citizen-based measure been required for drawing districts, prison gerrymandering may well have ended.
As Adam Liptak and others noted, a win for Texas in Evenwel would deeply undermine constitutional arguments against prison gerrymandering. After all, prisoners are people ineligible, just like non-citizens or children. They’re drawn into districts with the rest of the total population. Instead, one must come up with a political theory for excluding this set of non-voters from redistricting, but not other sets of non-voters.
In a recently-published article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Perpetuating “One Person, One Vote” Errors, I highlight the deep problems that arise when courts attempt to insert ever more-detailed theories of political representation into the constitutional doctrine of “one person, one vote.” Mercifully, I remarked, the decision in Evenwel leaves some discretion to the states (and cities) in redistricting.
But the decision in Davidson takes away some of this discretion. And it does so using bizarre support from the Three-Fifths Clause. It even suggests prisoners are less worthy of representation than slaves.