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End Precinct 5’s unfair political influence

April 22, 2013

When voters of Walpole’s Precinct 5 in South Walpole go to the polls this June to elect their Town Meeting Representatives, they should cast their votes wisely – they exercise greater political clout than every other town voter, thanks to an obscure quirk in the town charter.

Ever since Walpole adopted a Representative Town Meeting form of government in 1971, the town charter has stipulated that all 150 RTMs must be apportioned according to the “number of inhabitants” in each precinct. In concept, this means the most populous precinct should have the most number of RTMs, while the smallest precinct by census should have the least number of RTMs. In a Representative Town Meeting that is, by its very name, intended to be “representative” of the people, this form of apportionment makes sense.

But under the Town Counsel’s interpretation of the town charter, the town’s “inhabitants” also include the 690 inmates at MCI-Cedar Junction – located entirely in Precinct 5. Even though inmates can’t vote, can’t pay local property taxes, and likely don’t ever even see the streets of Walpole, Precinct 5’s population, and the resultant number of people in their Town Meeting delegation, gets an unfair boost.

With the inclusion of the prison in their census, Precinct 5 is the third most populous precinct in town. Without the prison, Precinct 5 would be the least populous, and would have the least number of RTMs. As it is, Precinct 5 has the least number of registered voters of all precincts.

Under the current charter, after this year’s town election, Precinct 5 will have more RTMs than three other precincts – 1, 7, and 8 – despite technically having far fewer actual residents who aren’t in a prison. Precinct 5 will have 19 RTMs, while Precincts 1, 7, and 8 will each have 18 RTMs. (See 180’s chart here.)

That gives Precinct 5 an unfair advantage over other precincts. Even though the impact is relatively minor, and doesn’t necessarily mean that Precinct 5 gets particular advantages from Town Hall such as more funding or better services, this issue calls into question the true representativeness of the town’s venerable Town Meeting form of government. It benefits one small area of town at the expense of other more populous areas. It distorts the political process by giving residents of one precinct greater influence in Town Meeting – even if it is just by one extra person in their Town Meeting delegation.

Walpole is one of only two state prison host communities in the state – the other is Framingham – that has a RTM form of government, with RTMs apportioned by population. A staffer at the Town Clerk’s office in Framingham confirmed last week to 180 that their town does not include the population of their state prison for the purpose of apportioning RTMs among their 18 precincts. That means Walpole is the only community in the state that gives a portion of their residents unfair political clout in their town government.

[Update 4/24/13: There are actually seven communities in the state with RTM forms of government and prisons. In most cases, these are county prisons, rather than state prisons. Walpole and Framingham are the only two of these seven to have state prisons. Indeed, other communities, such as Dartmouth, do count prison populations in their RTM counts as Walpole does.]

Yet the practice of including prisoners in political districts and inflating population counts is hardly unique to Walpole, even though it isn’t an issue in other communities with Representative Town Meetings.

In 2006, a resident of Anamosa, Iowa was elected to his City Council with just two write-in votes, despite the fact that his ward had almost 1,400 residents. Fewer than 100 of those residents were actual registered voters, while the remainder were prisoners at the Anamosa State Penitentiary.

And it wasn’t until redistricting in 2001 that the city of Gardner, Mass. stopped including their prison population in one of their precincts, a practice that gave that precinct’s residents greater clout on their City Council because their Ward Councilor had far fewer actual voters and constituents than other Councilors.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a Northampton, Mass.-based think tank that studies and advocates against drawing political districts around prisons, four of Massachusetts’ current state House districts and three state Senate districts meet minimum Constitutional population requirements only because they include prison populations as constituents (Walpole is not in any of those legislative districts.)

Only two states – Maryland and New York – legally require prisoners to be counted only as residents of their home addresses for the purpose of legislative redistricting. California and Delaware, meanwhile, have enacted similar laws that take effect only after the 2020 census. All other states, including Massachusetts, still include prison populations in legislative districts.

Technically, Walpole’s 2010 census – with 24,070 residents – isn’t correct, either, because it includes the prison’s 690 inmates. Interestingly enough, this has a positive impact on the town’s budget, since some state and federal funds, such as lottery and library money, are distributed according to town populations. The bigger the prison is, the more Walpole gains financially.

The PPI is pushing the Mass. state legislature and other states to pass legislation similar to those of Maryland, New York, California, and Delaware that will fix the problem of prison-based gerrymandering in time for the 2020 census. But Walpole shouldn’t wait for change at the state level to fix their charter. Just as with a host of other concerns that have come up in the past year related to the town charter, Selectmen should immediately put together a Charter Review Committee, because voters of every precinct in Walpole deserve to have fair representation in Town Meeting.

(At 180’s request, staff from the PPI will be monitoring the situation in Walpole, and speaking to town officials, to advocate for fixing the way RTMs are apportioned. Stay tuned.)

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