Equal representation is the cornerstone of our democracy.
Nowhere is this principle more important than in the redrawing of election district lines every decade.
Federal law requires that electoral districts have substantially equal populations, so voters in one district do not have more — or less — power than others.
There’s one area where this principle has been compromised, and it all boils down to the U.S. Census Bureau’s count of prisoners as residents of districts where prisons are located, rather than as residents of their home communities.
This prison-based malapportionment, also known as “prison gerrymandering,” shifts power to rural counties where prisons are located and away from urban and Native American districts.
It can also dilute power at the local government level.
At the state level, this system tends to favor districts around Hobbs and Grants, among others.
At least three current House districts are comprised of populations that are 4 percent incarcerated.
Within Cibola County, where the women’s prison is, over 38 percent of one city district is composed of inmates, who do not vote.
In areas whose populations are inflated by captive constituents, elected officials are beholden to fewer voters — compared to other districts where representatives may be flooded with constituent concerns.
The problem exacerbates inequality along racial lines. In New Mexico, Hispanic and Native American people are between three and seven times more likely to be incarcerated.
Incarceration facilities are frequently far from their homes.
Home communities — many of them already under-served — suffer not only from the physical loss of incarcerated family members, but also lose voting power through this process.
A prison cell is not a permanent home. People who are incarcerated must have their dignity restored: We must stop using their bodies to bolster the voting strength of districts housing prisons.
Like anybody else, people who are incarcerated deserve to be counted as residents of their home communities.
Eleven states and more than 200 local governments now adjust census data to account for prison populations before redistricting in order to shape more equitable and accurate districts.
We have not done that in New Mexico, but it is not too late to mitigate or end prison gerrymandering.
The state’s new, bipartisan Citizen Redistricting Committee is uniquely positioned to remedy this harm.
Although there is no time to enact a state law banning prison gerrymandering, there is time for the committee to work with the state Corrections Department to use the home addresses of inmates as the basis for a revised map.
With a decreased prison population (5,662) this should not be an insurmountable task.
The revised map would count inmates as part of their own communities of interest, among like-minded residents with whom they share a culture and history.
By reassigning people who are incarcerated back to their hometowns, the committee can bring our state closer to the constitutionally enshrined, one-person, one-vote ideal.
Please contact members of the Citizen Redistricting Committee to make this change at nmredistricting.org or sign a petition by Common Cause New Mexico and co-signed by the American Civil Liberties Union at actionnetwork.org/petitions/end-prison-gerrymandering-in-new-mexico.
(Mario Jimenez works with Common Cause New Mexico. He is the former chief deputy Dona Ana County clerk. Common Cause New Mexico is a non-partisan organization dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy, reinventing an open, honest and accountable government that works for the public interest.)