Pennsylvania sued over counting inmates in legislative districts

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HARRISBURG, PA – MARCH 21: Airplane flys over PA State Capitol Building with a banner reading “SEN. TOOMEY DO YOUR JOB! #FILLTHESEAT” during National Day Of Action calling on Senate Republicans to “Do Your Job” and uphold their constitutional obligation to give fair consideration to U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland on March 21, 2016 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for MoveOn.org)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A lawsuit filed Thursday seeks to end the practice in Pennsylvania of counting state inmates as residents of the district where they are incarcerated, arguing it violates a constitutional requirement that elections be free and equal.

The case was filed by three former inmates, a woman who lives in Philadelphia, the NAACP and related organizations, and others. It argues that the practice unfairly distorts political power and should be stopped when new districts are drawn after this year’s census.

“It artificially and arbitrarily inflates the political power of the voters, who are predominantly white, and who live in the primarily rural counties where most of Pennsylvania’s correctional facilities are located,” the lawsuit argues, and dilutes the political sway of black and Latino residents of urban counties where few prisons are found.

The defendants are the state of Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar. An administration spokesman declined comment, but Wolf has previously said he believes prisoners should be counted at their home or last known address for district-drawing purposes.

Legislative districts are chosen by a five-member panel consisting of appointees chosen by the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, as well as a fifth member, usually selected by the state Supreme Court.

The lawsuit said state inmates may not vote in their prison’s districts and do not form community ties or access constituent services there.

It claims the practice violates a state constitutional requirement that legislative districts be as nearly equal in population as possible.

The practice of counting inmates where they are jailed has become a bigger problem, the lawsuit argues, as the state prison population has grown from 8,000 in 1980 to about 46,000 today. Almost half of the state inmates are black and about 9% are Latino.

“This has become more of an issue more recently, given the criminal justice system and how it has imprisoned people of color disproportionately,” said Catherine Meza with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc., a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

The few inmates who can vote do so by absentee ballot in their districts back home, the lawsuit said.

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