A house bill that attempts to bring fairness to the way prisoners are represented in Oregon is undergoing changes in the Rules Committee.
Currently, prisoners are counted as residents of the correctional institution in which they are imprisoned, inflating population statistics and inaccurately skewing congressional and local representation in sparsely populated areas where offenders can't vote and rarely stay after they're released, says state Rep. Chip Shields, the bill's main sponsor.
During an introductory hearing last week, the Department of Corrections said it would be difficult to track the permanent addresses of offenders, as many are homeless or renters. A change in the bill's wording would be needed to clarify that the DOC would record an offender's address at the time of their arrest.
This comes at a time in which Oregon prepares to undergo a congressional and legislative redistricting process. This requirement would more accurately reflect congressional and legislative representation across the state, say supporters of the bill.
"They don't count them as residents of their home communities," Shields said. "They count them as residents of communities in which they are incarcerated. This gives more political power to citizens that happen to live next to a correctional institution."
While a person is incarcerated, they do not have voting rights in Oregon. Once an offender is released from prison in this state, their voting rights are then restored. Shields said many people released from prison return to their home counties – as dictated by state law.
The Oregon House Rules Committee held its first public hearing on the bill Monday, where Shields testified that he has received bipartisan support on a bill that is aimed at restoring fairness. He is also personally affected by the bill – of the top three home zip codes for offenders, two of those zip codes are in Shields' district.
Republican Rep. Bob Jenson said he found the bill to be the "antithesis of fairness."
"The overwhelming majority of people who are incarcerated come out of the most populace part of the state," he said. "Particularly Multnomah County."
Jenson said he opposed the bill because it could cost the Republican Party seats in the House – possibly his own.
"It would increase the division between the two parties in this chamber by one vote. One person," he said. "This would obviously cause me great concern."
Jenson represents Pendleton, Ore., home to the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, a 1,600-bed prison that is the city's fourth largest employer.
This issue is not just a regional one. The Prison Policy Initiative has documented the Census Bureau's counting of prisoners as members of a community. They found that in New York in the 1990s, two out of every three people to move to upstate New York was a prisoner. They say this has created districts that would otherwise be illegal under federal law.
Janice Thompson of Democracy Reform Oregon said the system is unfair to voters, and House Bill 2930 would restore fairness to the system.
"It counts people where they can vote," she said. "You don't count people where they can't vote."
She said she has researched other states and found that in some prison communities, there is a huge imbalance in city or county level representation.
"In (Anamosa) Iowa, there's a prison in one ward where about 50 voters are represented by one city council member, compared to 1,500 in another," she said.
Rep. Chris Edwards, a Democrat who represents a district encompassing west Eugene, said he thought the implications on local races was interesting.
"As somebody whose district will be the recipient of a prison soon, I hadn't thought about the local level and how much difference that could make in a county commission race where we have 5 county commissioners and X number of (prisoners) concentrated in one area," he said. "The effect would certainly be more profound. Not just a shift in one area of the state to another, but actually people that potentially never resided in the county at all. It seems even more obtuse to me."