Prisoners pad the population

2012-03-04T00:00:00Z Prisoners pad the populationJOAN BARRON Casper Star-Tribune Online
March 04, 2012 12:00 am  • 

The new Senate district for Goshen County looks like a finger as it hugs the eastern Wyoming border north then twists to the west at the tip.

The main purpose of this truly weird configuration is to take in the population of the medium security prison at Torrington to get enough population for the Senate district for Goshen County.

Although the inmates cannot vote, they are counted as residents in the federal census. The 2010 census listed 499 inmates. Currently 631 male inmates live at the Torrington institution.

Sen. Curt Meier of LaGrange had the idea for the amendment which is a better deal for Goshen County and saves his seat.

Under the original redistricting plan approved by the Joint Interim Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions, Meier’s home would have been in the same district as Sen. Wayne Johnson of Cheyenne. In a face-off election, Johnson would have been the favorite.

Meier said his idea had been used before for a Senate district seat held by former Rae Lynn Job, a Democrat from Rock Springs in Sweetwater County.

The district curved around to take in the prison population at Rawlins in neighboring Carbon County.

“They’ve been counting people who don’t vote for a long time in legislative districts,” Meier said last week.

He said the effort was not gerrymandering. “We pointed and clicked and used census blocks,” he said. “It worked out for Goshen County residents because only 350 have to vote for Laramie County residents.”

Without his amendment 850 Goshen County residents would be in a Laramie County Senate district.

One difficulty in drawing different lines, he said, were the restrictions against disturbing the lines for the “hands-off” counties — Natrona and Laramie counties. “That stuck so everybody had to work around those two big counties,” Meier said.

Wyoming’s redistricting effort caught the attention of Peter Wagner, who is working on prison policies. He runs a national project about how prison populations in the census can skew legislative redistricting.

Wyoming has two problems with “prison-based gerrymandering,” Wagner wrote in an email. One is Senate District 6 in Goshen County. The second is Senate District 11 in Carbon County where the high security prison is located. Neither district can meet minimum population requirements without using prison populations.

“They are the clearest examples we have seen in a state legislative district of prisons influencing the shape of boundary lines,” he wrote.

“The proposed Wyoming districts are really unique. They take knowledge of how prison populations can distort the redistricting process and they use that knowledge in a very negative — if creative — way.”

The national trend, Wagner wrote, is going in the opposite direction from what the Wyoming Legislature has done. Recently, four states have passed legislation to count incarcerated people at home when drawing districts; two of them had their laws take effect immediately. More than 100 local governments with large prisons refuse to use the prisons when drawing their districts.

“The concern is that using the prison population to pad the population of the districts with the prisons gives extra representation to that district and dilutes the votes of all other districts,” he wrote.

The Wyoming 2012 redistricting bill passed easily, despite unhappy mutterings from some lawmakers. Before the last vote, Sen. Cale Case, a Lander Republican, who was co-chairman of the corporations committee, expressed his dissatisfaction with the odd Goshen County configuration.

To be sure the Senate members hadn’t missed it, he showed the plan with the finger-like district to his colleagues then showed them the boxy configuration in the committee’s plan.

And then he showed them the two plans again — before and after.

Only two senators voted against the bill, Sens. John Barnard of Evanston and Ogden Driskill of Devils Tower.

The most outspoken critic of the plan was Driskill, who claimed it shorts the small population, rural counties.

Contact Joan Barron at 307-632-1244 or joan.barron@trib.com.

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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