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NVRI Files Amicus Brief in Federal Court Regarding Felon Disenfranchisement
January 31, 2005

A combination of policies regarding the census, political redistricting and felon disenfranchisement are discriminating against racial minorities in New York state. The state denies incarcerated prisoners the right to vote, yet counts prisoners as residents of prisons where they are incarcerated when drawing its state legislative districts. This practice dilutes minority voting strength by enhancing the voting power of upstate rural prison districts, at the expense of the urban minority communities where most prisoners retain their legal residence.

NVRI, together with the Prison Policy Initiative, describes the racially discriminatory impact of this practice in an amicus brief filed January 28, 2005 in Muntaqim v. Coombe, a case challenging New York's prisoner disenfranchisement laws under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The Second Circuit has granted an unusual en banc review of the case.

Our brief draws on a seminal report by Peter Wagner, Assistant Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, entitled Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York (April 2002). The brief explains how New York's policy of crediting prison towns with the presence of disenfranchised prisoners for purposes of redistricting enhances the voting strength of white communities that host prisons while diluting the representation afforded to urban communities of color. Representatives of these rural upstate districts make little pretense of treating prisoners as actual constituents.

State Senator Dale Volker, a conservative Republican who represents one such district, has acknowledged in an interview that he would sooner seek votes from the cows in his districts than from the prison inmates because "they would be more likely to vote for me." If prisoners were counted as residents of the communities where they resided prior to incarceration, rather than as residents of prison towns, a number of urban communities of color would in all likelihood be entitled to greater representation in the legislature. Several predominantly white upstate legislative districts would not have sufficient population to justify a representative were it not for the disenfranchised prisoners.

The brief points out that New York's assignment of disenfranchised prisoners to upstate rural districts for purposes of redistricting bears a striking resemblance to the original "Three-Fifths" clause of the United States Constitution, which allowed the South to obtain enhanced representation in Congress by counting disenfranchised slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional apportionment. The brief urges the Court to consider the discriminatory impact of prisoner disenfranchisement on state legislative redistricting as part of the totality of circumstances supporting a finding that prisoner disenfranchisement violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.