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Significant Victory in Fight to End Prison Gerrymandering: Cranston Lawsuit Will Move Forward

Posted: September 08, 2014|Category: Voting Rights

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Cranston residents and the ACLU of Rhode Island won a significant victory today in their fight for equal voting power in City elections when Judge Lagueux of the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island denied a motion to dismiss their one person, one vote lawsuit, allowing their case to move forward.

“I’m thrilled this case is going forward,” said Karen Davidson, lead plaintiff. “As a Cranston resident and taxpayer I’m entitled to equal representation and I will keep fighting for it.”

At issue in the case is the City of Cranston’s choice to count the more than three thousand inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) in a single city ward for the purposes of drawing City Council and School Committee districts. Plaintiffs argue this “prison gerrymandering” is improper because those incarcerated at the ACI are not true constituents of local elected officials, but instead remain residents of their pre-incarceration communities for virtually all legal purposes, including voting.

Due to the questionable counting, persons at the only state-run correctional facility in Rhode Island account for 25% of Ward 6’s total “population.” According to Census Bureau data, without the incarcerated population, Ward 6 has only 10,209 true constituents. Yet those constituents now wield the same political power as the roughly 13,300 constituents in each of the other wards. The lawsuit claims that this dilutes the voting strength and political influence of citizens residing outside of Ward 6, in violation of the Equal Protection requirements of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Lagueux agreed that this is a viable legal claim, stating that “...the inclusion of the ACI prison population is not advancing the principle of electoral equality because the majority of prisoners...cannot vote, and those who can vote are required by State law to vote by absentee ballot from their pre-incarceration address” and that the incarcerated population’s “inclusion in Ward Six does nothing to advance the principle of representational equality.”

“We’re excited our case is going forward, and we urge the City to correct its prison gerrymandering problem without delay,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “By not correcting this, the City of Cranston is allowing the 2014 elections to be held under a one-person, three-quarters of a vote regime."

Cranston residents Karen Davidson, Debbie Flitman, Eugene Perry, and Sylvia Weber have joined the ACLU of Rhode Island as plaintiffs in the case. They are represented in federal court by Demos, the Prison Policy Initiative, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This is a big win, because it shows that our legal arguments are valid,” said Adam Lioz of Demos, counsel for the plaintiffs. “We hope the City will fix the problem—but if not, we look forward to proving our case at trial: that persons incarcerated at the ACI aren’t really constituents of local politicians and so shouldn’t be counted at the prison for purposes of representation.”

“Counting people at the ACI as constituents of Ward 6 officials makes no sense,” said Aleks Kajstura of the Prison Policy Initiative. “They can’t use the park or library, attend a City Council meeting, or send their kids to public schools. And, even those who can vote must do so from their actual legal residence, not the prison location.

"Prison gerrymandering distorts the process and runs counter to the core principle of one person, one vote,” said Sean Young, attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. "All Cranston voters should have an equal say in who their elected officials are. When citizens exercise their fundamental right to vote, they expect that their vote will be counted equally, not as if it were only three-fourths of someone else’s vote."

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