It’s been called the purest form of democracy — the annual Massachusetts ritual of town meeting dating back to the 1630s — when neighbors get together to spend their community’s money and set its rules, arguing everything from whether to build a new school to how much to charge for trash disposal.
But as this spring’s town meeting season rolls in, a research group is questioning whether the institution is working as it should in communities that host prisons, including Billerica, Dedham, Framingham, Plymouth, and Walpole.
The Prison Policy Initiative in Easthampton says that voters in some precincts in those towns wield unfair power — with more town meeting members than they should have.
That’s because the US Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of their prison locations, rather than their home addresses, according to report author Aleks Kajstura. The method is used, she said, even though prisoners can’t vote in local elections.
“When governments use this data to draw electoral districts, they grant undue political power to people who live near prisons and dilute the votes cast everywhere else,” she said. “Although not always intentional, this ‘prison gerrymandering’ often results in significant voting inequality.”
For example, Kajstura said, three of the nine representatives of precinct 10 in Plymouth owe their positions to the population of the prison within the precinct boundaries.
The method of counting also affects, in varying degrees, precincts in Billerica, Dedham, Framingham, and Walpole, she said. It’s important, she added, because town meetings make key decisions for their communities — often far weightier questions than the Colonists’ original squabbles over how much to fine neighbor whose cows got loose.
The issue came to the forefront in February when the ACLU of Rhode Island sued the town of Cranston, R.I., saying its most recent redistricting plan violates the one-person, one-vote principle of the Constitution by counting prisoners as Cranston residents.
“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,” Kajstura said in a press release about the suit. “Using the people incarcerated at the [state prison complex] to pad the resident population of Ward 6 is not only irrational, but also unconstitutional.”
This side of the border, Walpole Town Clerk Ron Fucile said he’s been concerned for a while about the fairness of including the prisoners at the state MCI-Cedar Junction as part of the town’s precinct five. Earlier this month he successfully asked selectmen to reduce the number of Town Meeting seats in that precinct by one — adding it to another precinct.
“It’s more the way it ought to be,” Fucile said. He said he’d ultimately like the town charter changed to scrub the prison population altogether from the formula used to determine precinct seats. The number of prisoners fluctuates, but is usually about 700, he said.
“I also told the board it is time the Census Bureau and our Legislature come up with a law which addresses the prison being there,” he added.
In fact, pending legislation on Beacon Hill would “urge” the Census Bureau to use prisoners’ home addresses for redistricting purposes.
The bill, sponsored by Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz and Linda Dorcena Forry of Boston and Representative Thomas Stanley of Waltham, says that the current method “results in distortions of the one-person, one-vote principle in drawing electoral districts in Massachusetts, diluting the representation of the majority of districts that do not contain prisons.”
Currently five states — Colorado, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, and New York — require local governments to exclude prison populations when figuring out their voting districts, Kajstura said.
Not everyone is as bothered by the issue as she is, Kajstura acknowledged, especially town clerks who are responsible for drawing local voting districts and determining how many people should be elected for representative town meetings.
There are 36 communities in Massachusetts with representative town meetings, and 260 with open meetings where all residents can participate, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
Dedham has a representative form, and Kajstura’s report calculated that seven of the 39 Town Meeting members in Dedham’s precinct one are due to the inmate population at the Dedham Correction Center — which changes daily but averages about 600 inmates, according to Dedham Town Clerk Paul M. Munchbach.
But Munchbach said there was “enough leeway in each precinct that it doesn’t matter.”
“Whether you have 4,000 or 3,300 residents, you have the same number of Town Meeting members,” he said.
Framingham Town Clerk Valerie Mulvey also said that she didn’t consider including prison counts in the town population a problem. Framingham houses the state’s female inmates at MCI-Framingham and the South Middlesex Correctional Center, and Kajstura’s report concluded that two of the 12 Town Meeting seats in precinct 16 are the result of the prison population.
In Billerica’s precinct six — home to the Middlesex House of Correction, with between 800 and 1,000 inmates on any given day — five of the 23 Town Meeting representatives can be attributed to the prison population, Kajstura said.
But Billerica Town Clerk Shirley Schult said, “It really doesn’t make an awful big difference in our Town Meeting members. You have to take everyone from infant to as old as they get, so it averages out.”
“No one has ever talked about it,” she added. “The prison has been there forever. It’s just part of our life.”
Plymouth Town Clerk Laurence Pizer said he sees both sides of the issue.
“As a citizen, someone might have an opinion as to whether this is a good idea,” he said. “As town clerk setting up the precincts, it’s not one of the things I can deal with: It’s a given. The federal laws say a prisoner is counted where he lays his head on April 1.”
But Pizer said other factors are involved, too.
“We have 15 precincts in Plymouth, all within 5 percent of one another” in population, he said. “Yet one of our precincts has 3,787 voters in it, and another has 2,034 voters in it — and that’s not even the precinct with the prison. The one with the very high number is mostly retired people who have fewer children, and most of them register to vote. The other has a fairly high number of non-citizens and high number of children. Someone might say, is that fair?
“One man, one vote has never been based on the number of registered voters. It’s based on people in the precinct — and children don’t have the right to vote, incarcerated felons don’t have the right to vote, but they are counted as people. And certainly they have the right to be counted somewhere.”
By including prisoners in local population counts, the US Census skews the configuration of some local precincts with elected Town Meeting representatives, according to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative in Easthampton.
Billerica, Precinct 6: 5 of the 23 Town Meeting representatives from that precinct are attributable to prison population; prisoners make up 21 percent of the precinct
Dedham, Precinct 1: 7 of the 39 representatives are due to prison population; 17 percent
Framingham, Precinct 16: 2 of the 12 due to prison population; 20 percent
Plymouth, Precinct 10: 3 of the 9 due to prison population; 35 percent
Walpole, Precinct 5: 3 of the 19 due to prison population; 18 percent
SOURCE: Prison Policy Initiative, Easthampton
Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.