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Suit: Changing prisoner count weakens rural, GOP districts

August 16, 2021 GMT
FILE-  This April 7, 2021 file photo shows Virginia State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazwell listening to a debate during the Senate reconvene session at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, Va. Hackworth is suing Virginia's new redistricting commission over a plan to count prisoners at their last known address instead of the mostly rural prison facilities in which they're incarcerated. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
FILE- This April 7, 2021 file photo shows Virginia State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazwell listening to a debate during the Senate reconvene session at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, Va. Hackworth is suing Virginia's new redistricting commission over a plan to count prisoners at their last known address instead of the mostly rural prison facilities in which they're incarcerated. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
FILE- This April 7, 2021 file photo shows Virginia State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazwell listening to a debate during the Senate reconvene session at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, Va. Hackworth is suing Virginia's new redistricting commission over a plan to count prisoners at their last known address instead of the mostly rural prison facilities in which they're incarcerated. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

A Republican state senator is among a group of people suing the Virginia Redistricting Commission over plans to count prisoners at their last known address instead of the prisons where they’re incarcerated.

The lawsuit says the change will politically weaken Virginia’s rural and conservative areas after the state draws new congressional and legislative districts.

“Virginia prisons are typically located in rural districts with greater Republican voting strength, particularly in the southside and southwest regions of the commonwealth,” the suit said.

The legal challenge was filed Friday in Virginia’s state Supreme Court. Petitioners include state Sen. Travis Hackworth, who represents a reliably Republican district that stretches from the Virginia-Kentucky border to Radford.

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Hackworth’s district includes five state correctional facilities, according to the lawsuit. Others who are suing include county representatives in western counties such as Buchanan and Tazewell.

The lawsuit stems from the recent creation of the Virginia Redistricting Commission, which put redistricting in the hands of a bipartisan body of Democrats and Republicans.

Voters approved the commission in a November referendum that amended the state constitution. But the lawsuit states that other redistricting laws were passed by lawmakers outside the referendum — and therefore violated the state constitution.

Redistricting criteria, including changes to how prisoners are counted, were enacted “without ever being submitted to the people for approval,” the suit said.

Citizen co-chairs of the Virginia Redistricting Commission did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Andrea Gaines, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Elections, said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Rebecca Green, a law professor at William & Mary, said the lawsuit is “a long shot.”

She said it’s common practice for lawmakers to flesh out the details after an amendment is passed.

“It would be impossible to go through the (state) constitutional amendment process every time you want to tweak redistricting criteria,” she said.

The lawsuit has been filed in the wake of the release of the latest U.S. census numbers, which states use every 10 years for redistricting. The numbers showed that population growth in typically more liberal northern Virginia outpaced the rest of the state.

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The lawsuit also comes at a time when a small but growing number of states have modified how they count prisoners when drawing up political districts. Virginia is one of 11 states that have made a change, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Virginia’s law requires the state to count prisoners based off their last known address before incarceration if it was in Virginia, the NCSL said. If it was out of state, the prison’s address is used.

Counting inmates at their prison addresses inflates the influence of an area surrounding a correctional facility, critics of the practice say.

They also say it diminishes the sway of communities from which an inmate came. Most inmates aren’t allowed to vote while in prison. And many come from communities of color.

“The goal of representation should be that people are counted where they have ties and where the local elected officials actually represent their interests,” said Yurij Rudensky, redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.

But the lawsuit filed by Hackworth says that rural communities expend substantial resources to support prisons, whether it’s through local hospitals or the infrastructure providing utilities.

Changing how prisoners are counted “creates real and significant funding and planning problems for ... rural communities,” the lawsuit said.