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How an end to "prison gerrymandering" will impact Virginia elections

NPR

As voters head to the polls in the June 20th primary, they'll be casting ballots in new districts with new boundaries. Those new districts will include people incarcerated somewhere else.

Before the new set of political maps was created by the state Supreme Court last year, Virginia engaged in a process critics call prison gerrymandering: people who are incarcerated were counted at the prison or jail instead of their home or last known address.

Kate Donovan at the Redistricting Data Hub says that created a tension for elected officials.

"The representative, in theory, is supposed to be representing both the folks in prison as well as the folks living around the prison," Donovan explains. "Demographically, and probably in terms of attitudes towards prisons, those are very different populations, right? With likely very different attitudes."

Now, for the first time ever, Virginia is counting people where they lived before they were incarcerated. Shawn Weneta at the ACLU of Virginia says that's a major step in the right direction.

"There were some Senate districts that had five and six prisons in them, so they effectively are taking five or six thousand people out of the voting pool in that district," Weneta says. "So that could lead to a shift being more honest in who's actually voting and not being able to stack the deck."

He says the next important question is about suffrage, adding that people who are represented by elected officials should have the right to be part of the process and vote. So far, the movement to add a constitutional amendment giving the vote to people who are incarcerated hasn't received much traction.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.