Most prisoners in the United States are counted where they are incarcerated for the purposes of legislative redistricting. This practice—which critics label “prison gerrymandering”—inflates the representation of mostly white, rural prison host communities at the expense of the urban and minority communities from which prisoners disproportionately hail. A battle to reform the practice has intensified in recent years, with federal courts on the front lines; the first federal court to invalidate a prison gerrymander did so in 2016, invoking the Equal Protection Clause’s one-person, one-vote principle, and a division of authority has since emerged. As things stand, courts can expect a wave of these claims after the 2020 Census, but they are divided and ill equipped to resolve them.
This Note undertakes an in-depth analysis of one-person, one-vote challenges to prison gerrymanders and is the first scholarly work to analyze this emerging body of law. It argues that the Equal Protection Clause does limit prison gerrymandering, advocating a novel approach for adjudicating these claims—one that looks principally to community ties (or the absence thereof) between prisoners and the localities that house them. It considers the impact of the Supreme Court’s recent landmark decision in Evenwel v. Abbott and other key precedents. It also discusses relevant voting rights scholarship that courts have thus far overlooked. Ultimately, this Note aims to shed light on an underexamined constitutional right—the right to equal representation, as opposed to an equal vote—and to provide courts and litigants with the tools they need to effectively tackle prison gerrymandering claims going forward.