Every decade, Maryland redraws its legislative districts to reflect the state's changing demographics and to ensure that voters in different parts of the state are given equal weight in electing representatives in Annapolis. But Baltimore has never been able to count city residents who are incarcerated in other parts of the state for the purpose of drawing legislative boundaries — even though most of them eventually return to the city after serving their sentences.
This year, lawmakers moved to correct that situation — a seeming violation of the Supreme Court's "one man, one vote" rule — by enacting legislation to count inmates as residents where they lived prior to incarceration, rather than as part of the population in the districts where they are held. The current statistical sleight-of-hand made little sense because city residents imprisoned in Allegany County or Washington County were never really members of those communities. Moreover, the counting method had the perverse effect of artificially inflating the populations of prison-rich districts for the purpose of legislative redistricting, while unfairly depriving residents of the communities they came from of equal representation in Annapolis.
As an example, 18 percent of the population credited to House of Delegates District 2B, near Hagerstown, actually consists of inmates from other parts of the state. Under the previous counting procedure, that meant that voters there were significantly overrepresented in Annapolis, since it took only 82 District 2B residents to wield as much political clout on the state level as 100 residents elsewhere.
The problem also affects representation on the county level. In Somerset County, where inmates of a large prison represent 64 percent of the 1st County Commission District, the imbalance was even more egregious. District voters there had 2.7 times as much weight in redistricting as voters anywhere else in the county. Moreover, counting prison inmates as district "residents" has allowed the county to put off indefinitely creating an effective African-American majority district stemming from a vote dilution lawsuit settled in the 1980s. To this day, no black official has been elected to public office there.
Maryland's law, the first of its kind in the nation, applies only to legislative redistricting and does not affect federal funding distribution formulas for schools, social services, public works and other programs. But it greatly improves the fairness and accuracy of the census data used for apportioning representation in state government. Lawmakers are to be applauded for rectifying a historic injustice.
The issue isn't just a Maryland problem, either. Nationally, prison rights advocates expect the 2010 Census to count five times as many people in prison as it did 30 years ago. Several states with large prison populations, such as New York, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin, are considering similar legislation to ensure greater fairness in the redistricting process and to reflect incarcerated populations more accurately.
It's no wonder the Maryland jurisdictions with large prison populations don't want to see their influence diminished. But complaints that the new law is unfair ring hollow coming from people who for years benefited from inflated counts that boosted their influence at others' expense. A more equitable system would long ago have counted incarcerated people from Baltimore as city residents, regardless of where they happen to be serving their time.