In a friend of the court brief, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) urged the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit to uphold a key lower court decision that ruled that Cranston, Rhode Island’s prison-based gerrymandering redistricting scheme is unconstitutional. LDF is joined on the brief by LatinoJustice PRLDEF (LJP), Direct Action for Rights (DARE), and Equality and Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE). The law firm of O’Melveny Myers served as counsel to these groups.
“Prison-based gerrymandering distorts the building blocks of our democracy and significantly weakens the political power of all communities, particularly communities of color,” said Leah Aden, Senior Counsel at LDF. “This redistricting practice, therefore, is a clear and unconscionable violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.”
Cranston’s scheme, like too many others nationwide, counts incarcerated individuals as phantom “residents” of the prison facility where they are detained for the purposes of redistricting, rather than as residents of their legal homes in communities where they have family and other ties and often where they return once released. Many of these more than two million incarcerated individuals nationwide are people of color who come from urban communities, while the prison facilities that detain them are frequently located in rural, predominantly-white areas. During redistricting, prison-based gerrymandering, therefore, gifts the voting and representational power of urban communities of color to rural white communities living in close proximity to prisons.
“Prison-based gerrymandering is all too reminiscent of the reviled Three-Fifths Compromise which counted enslaved Black people as three-fifths of a person when apportioning legislative districts,” noted Aden. “In the 21st century, with the practice of prison-based gerrymandering, state and local jurisdictions use the bodies of incarcerated people of color to inflate the voting and representational strength of white areas of our country.”
“The Constitution is clear, and the First Circuit should recognize, that the weight of a person’s vote and their access to representation should not depend on where they live. Prison-based gerrymandering runs counter to this command,” Aden concluded.
The brief in Davidson v. Cranston, which is being litigated by Demos and the American Civil Liberties Union, among others, is part of LDF, PRLDEF, DARE, and Vote’s ongoing work to ensure unfettered political access for people of color and to put an end to prison-based gerrymandering nationwide.
LJP is one of the nation’s leading civil rights organizations working on behalf of the pan-Latino community. DARE, a grassroots organization in Rhode Island, works on behalf of low-income communities of color. And VOTE is a grassroots organization in Louisiana that works particularly on behalf of formerly incarcerated persons and their families.