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ACLU Sues Cranston over Redistricting Plan that Counts Inmates

Suit alleges the redistricting plan padded numbers for Ward 6, violating the one-person, one-vote principle.

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has sued the city of Cranston on behalf of a group of residents who claim the city's 2012 redistricting plan violated the one person, one vote principle by counting every inmate in the state prison as a Cranstonian.

The allegation is that by counting all the inmates at the Adult Correction Institutions in Cranston as Cranston residents, they inflate the population count in Ward 6, where the prison lies.

"Over 200 municipalities and counties across the country actively avoid this 'prison gerrymandering' when redistricting," said Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director at the Prison Policy Initiative. "There is no reason for Cranston to give extra representation to a select group of residents just because they happen to live near a prison.” 

The ACLU said because those incarcerated were counted as Cranston residents, three voters in the prison’s district have as much voting power as four voters in every other city district, according to Census Bureau data. 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 ACLU.

“As a long-time resident and taxpayer of Cranston, I am deeply concerned that the City Council decided in 2012 to perpetuate this voting inequity, especially after the ACLU pointed out the constitutional problems with it. It is time for city officials to show some leadership and stop wasting taxpayers’ money defending themselves from legal challenges like this," Davidson said.

The ACLU said the "overwhelming majority" of inmates are not true residents of Ward 6 and remain residents of their pre-incarcaration community for "virtually all legal purposes, including voting."

Citing U.S. Census Bureau data, the ACLU says Ward 6 has just 10,209 true residents but they now wield the power of 13,300 constituents in each of the other wards.

"This dilutes the voting strength and political influence of citizens residing outside of Ward 6, in clear violation of the Equal Protection requirements of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution," lawyers for the ACLU said in a release.

RIACLU Executive Director Steven Brown said the ACLU testified before the City Council and warned them they could be in violation of the one person-one vote principle in 2012.

"More than 200 counties and municipalities facing prison gerrymandering have pro-actively addressed the problem. It is unfortunate that the Cranston City Council refused to do so, leaving us no choice but to file this lawsuit," Brown said.

The volunteer lawyer handling the suit for the ACLU is Lynette Labinger, notable for her work leading the First Amendment suit filed against Cranston Public Schools for the notorious prayer banner that was on display in the Cranston High School West auditorium. 

The ACLU filed suit on behalf of a self-described atheist student and won. The banner was removed and remains in an undisclosed location.

 A copy of the lawsuit is attached to this article. Click "download pdf" next to the image to get it.

More details will be posted soon.

nicole fine February 19, 2014 at 12:35 PM
I thought inmates were not allowed to vote? But, just their mere residences in Cranston makes the difference?
Bill Santagata February 19, 2014 at 01:19 PM
Yes it does make a difference. Cranston is divided into 6 wards of what is supposed to be equal population. Each ward then gets one representative on City Council and one representative on the School Committee. If Wards 1-5 each have 1,000 people, and Ward 6 also has 1,000 people, but say 25% of those are actually inmates, then Ward 6 really has 750 people in it. Ward 6 gets 1 representative for 750 people whereas the others get 1 representative for 1,000 people. The effect is that the voting representation in the other wards is diluted. This is unconstitutional. Violating the Constitution is costly and the taxpayers of Cranston can expect another needless lawsuit that can run at least half a million dollars.
nicole fine February 19, 2014 at 06:28 PM
Bill, Thanks for the explanation. I wonder what is the number of constituents that actually vote or know what ward/district they live in, and who their Council/School Committee reps are?

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