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Prisoners can't vote, but they affect local districts; Communities wrestle with costs, representation.

Byline: George Barnes

They can't vote, and they live isolated from their neighbors, but inmates have a major effect on how voting district lines are drawn.

The U.S. Census Bureau counts inmates in the cities and towns where they are incarcerated. In some communities that can increase the population by as much as 20 percent. In Central Massachusetts, communities with prisoner populations are affected in varying degrees by the boost in population of non-voting inmates.

The process creates voting districts with residents who cannot vote, can cause unequal representation in local government, and adds costs to local communities.

The state has 18 correctional facilities with 10,353 inmates as of January 2014. Three are in Central Massachusetts, including North Central Correctional Institution -- Gardner with 934 inmates and Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster with 1,190 inmates. Lancaster had a total of 8,035 residents and inmates in 2010. The Massachusetts Correctional Institution -- Shirley has 1,341 inmates in a town with a population of 7,211. There is also the Federal Medical Center -- Devens, with about 1,000 inmates. They are all located in Harvard, which had a population of 6,520.

In Gardner, because it has more than 900 inmates living off Colony Road, for many years the city paid about $1,000 per election to maintain a third precinct in Ward 1. Ward 1, Precinct C was mostly non-voting inmates. In the September 2010 state primary election, only 14 people voted in that precinct, as opposed to several hundred in other precincts. Even with only a handful of voters, the city was still required to pay a precinct warden, clerk and four inspectors to run the voting for 13 hours.

By law, voting districts must be about the same size. In communities with prisons, jails or other facilities where people are incarcerated, that requirement results in a precinct having fewer people eligible to vote than other precincts.

People convicted and incarcerated for felonies are not allowed to vote during their prison terms in Massachusetts, but by law they are also supposed to be included in creating voting districts.

Prisoners convicted of felonies in Massachusetts may vote while awaiting trial and have their right to vote restored when their sentences are completed. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow convicted felons to continue voting while incarcerated. Eleven states permanently bar some or all people convicted of felonies from voting during and after their sentences. The rest allow voting restoration either after conclusion of the sentence, parole and probation; after sentence and parole or, like Massachusetts, after the sentence is completed.

The state is looking to change that. Alek Kajstura of the Prison Policy Initiative, an organization focused on issues related to prisons and

reducing levels of incarceration, said the state Legislature voted a resolution on Sept. 12 calling on the U.S. Census Bureau to end its policy of enumerating prisoners as residents of the communities they are temporarily living in. The state redistricts based on census data. The resolution noted that the census data on prisoners distorts the one-person, one-vote principle when drawing electoral districts, diluting the representation of districts that do not have prisons.

The prisons add population to certain districts, without adding traditional residents. The Census Bureau has already agreed to release data in its next census, in 2020, that would give states inmate information that would allow some states to adjust their census data to reflect inmates living in their homes before they were incarcerated. The state wants the Census Bureau to go one step further and place the inmates in their home communities before the census is released.

Communities have made varying efforts to deal with large inmate populations. City Clerk Alan L. Agnelli said Gardner had a third precinct for nine years. Others took steps through the Legislature to be allowed to avoid an extra precinct.

"In 2002, we were told we had to add another precinct,'' Mr. Agnelli said. "We added a few streets and Colony Road, which is where the prison is.''

The city's 2010 census of 20,228 included 900-plus inmates who needed to be included in a voting precinct. The precinct ended up with a population close to other precincts but never saw more than a handful of voters go to the polls. In 2011, Gardner was redistricted and the city eliminated Ward 1C. The city's map reflects the contorted effort to include the prison in the mix.

Even with the change, there remains a precinct that has significantly fewer registered voters than other precincts. Ward 1, Precinct B, the precinct with the prison, has 573 voters, significantly fewer voters than other precincts because it is the location of North Central Correctional Institution and its 900-plus inmates. Ward 1, Precinct A, has 1,422 voters.

Eliminating the extra precinct saves the city money each election and makes life easier for candidates running in Ward 1, but skews the level of representation, leaving Ward 1 with greater per capita representation of taxpayers and voters. If you add in the inmates from the prison, making allowances for the idea that some would not register to vote given the chance, the numbers are about the same for the two precincts.

Lancaster and Harvard both have sought special legislation to be exempted from creating new districts. Lancaster Town administrator Ryan McNutt said that in 2011, when the town was told it would have to create another precinct in town it petitioned the state Legislature and received permission for the town to only have two precincts.

Harvard Town Clerk Janet Vellante said the population of the Devens Medical Center pushed her town over 6,200 residents in 2010, and that too triggered the need to create what would have been a second precinct. She said it would have cost the town up to $7,000 for a new ballot box. Unlike other communities, she said, Harvard would not have incurred added costs other than extra food for volunteer poll workers. The town still sought special legislation to remain a one-precinct town.

West Boylston Town Clerk Kim D. Hopewell said the 1,100 inmates in the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction are also counted in West Boylston's population of 7,669. The town was able to remain with only two precincts, rather than three because the it stayed within population limits. Some inmates in the jail are not felons and can vote, but would vote by absentee ballot in their home precincts.

Along with the costs to communities for running elections in an additional precinct, Mr. Agnelli said there are other issues. Because city and town clerks are not notified of who is incarcerated from their community, inmates from the community may remain on the street lists and voting lists if family does not indicate they no longer live at their local residence. It would mean they could be listed twice on the census.

"I don't know who is incarcerated and I don't know if someone's voting rights are suspended,'' he said. "A person could be ineligible, but we could still be carrying him on the voting list.''

Also, Mr. Agnelli said there is the possibility of voter fraud as a family member could request an absentee ballot and either have the inmate fill it out in prison or the parent fill it out and mail it in. Ms. Kajstura added that there is also a concern in communities that elect town meeting members. If the town with that type of representation has a prison precinct, the small number of voters in the precinct would have much greater per capita representation at town meeting.

Contact George Barnes at george.barnes@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @georgebarnesTG
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Author:Barnes, George
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Oct 14, 2014
Words:1285
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