Counting prisoners, political motives at play in redistricting debate

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By: Carla Jimenez, Kentucky New Era

With the General Assembly set to take up the divisive issue of redistricting in a special legislative session, Kentucky lawmakers will have to consider myriad issues that go along with it.
Every 10 years, using new census numbers, Kentucky lawmakers have to take up the issue. A redistricting plan passed during the 2012 regular session, but the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down the map as unconstitutional. According to Kentucky’s high court, the map failed to abide by the “one person, one vote” rule.
Josh Douglas, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky who specializes in election law, explained the issue.
According to federal law, the legislative districts must roughly contain the same amount of people within a margin of 10 percent. For example, if the average number of people within a district is 1,000, a district can have a population between 900 and 1,100.
However, Kentucky law adds much more specific criteria.
Douglas said the Kentucky Supreme Court will only allow a deviation of 5 percent. What’s more, the Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled district lines must adhere to county lines as closely as possible.
“That’s really hard to get equal populations because there’s county lines, there’s rivers, there’s all sorts of things,” Douglas said.
And when it comes to gerrymandering - the practice of manipulating district lines for political reasons - Kentucky maintains very few laws to prohibit unfair practices.
“(Lawmakers) can’t draw lines with a racial motivator. That’s about it,” he said. “They are allowed to draw lines with politics in mind.”
In a recent example, the state House passed a proposed redistricting map during the 2013 regular session.  Republican representatives accused the Democrats of foul play because the map would have pitted 11 incumbent Republicans against each other.
Another issue lawmakers will have to consider during the redistricting debate is whether to count prisoners.
State Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, chairs the State Government Committee. In a recent phone interview, he said the House map passed during the regular session did not count prisoners, but Senate leaders have indicated that they wish to do so.
Douglas said the census has always counted prisoners where the prison is located. However, the practice of taking prisoners into account is a questionable one because they cannot vote, and, in the case of federal prisoners, most aren’t from Kentucky.
Additionally, counting prisoners could inflate population numbers in certain areas. For example, most of Kentucky’s prisons are in the eastern half of the state, and counting prisoners would give the eastern region of the state more representation.
Douglas said it could also potentially give the residents of those districts a more powerful vote in statewide elections.
For example, if there were 1,000 people total, and lawmakers were proposing to draw 10 districts, each district would have a population of 100 people. If one of those districts had a prison with 10 people, it would make the votes of the other 90 people residing in that district disproportionately more powerful than others across the state because prisoners can’t vote.
The regular session is set to begin Aug. 19 and will last the requisite five days and cost taxpayers roughly $60,000 per day. In the original call to the legislators, Gov. Steve Beshear said he believes the issue will be dealt with swiftly.
“I am confident that both the House and Senate will have their plans drawn and any remaining issues resolved by Aug. 19 so the special session will last only five days and therefore minimize the expense to taxpayers,” he said in a statement.