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Proposal to allow Va. localities to exclude prisoners may pass this GA session

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A bill introduced by Del. Riley E. Ingram, R-Hopewell, passed 99-0 in the House in the 2011 General Assembly session but died in a Senate committee.

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A proposal that would allow more Virginia localities to exclude prisoners when drawing voting districts may be approved in the coming General Assembly session.

A bill introduced by Del. Riley E. Ingram, R-Hopewell, passed 99-0 in the House in the 2011 General Assembly session but died in a Senate committee. Ingram said there were concerns on the committee that the bill might dilute the votes of African-Americans.

However, in 2010, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People passed a resolution supporting such legislation as a way of strengthening, not diluting, African-American voting strength.

"It would not dilute the black voter strength at all," Ingram said of his bill. In any case, he points out that with the tiebreaking role of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, Republicans now have an edge in a Senate split 20-20 between the parties after November's elections.

The U.S. Census Bureau requires localities to count prison and jail inmates as residents of the localities where the facilities are located, even though the inmates tend to be from urban areas and the prisons in rural ones. Also, prison inmates, as felons, are barred from voting.

The explosive growth of prisons in Virginia and across the country in sparsely populated areas during recent decades has led to distortions in districting that challenge the principle of one-person, one-vote.

In 2001, the Virginia General Assembly permitted counties with populations that were more than 12 percent prisoners to ignore the inmates when doing internal redistricting. But some counties do not have enough inmates to qualify and must include them.

Also, counties that could exclude inmates only could do so for state prison inmates, not inmates at federal prisons or regional jails. This includes Prince George County, which has about 4,700 federal and regional jail inmates in facilities near Fort Lee, Ingram said.

Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said Ingram's bill would permit localities where any one district has an inmate population of more than 12 percent to exclude the prisoners and federal and jail inmates.

Wagner said that some counties such as Powhatan, Southampton and Nottoway do not have enough inmates to qualify for the current, countywide 12 percent eligibility. But he said they do have prisons or jails that leave one or more districts with inmate populations far greater than 12 percent of the total district population.

The effect, Wagner said, is that in a district with a population made up of 50 percent nonvoting inmates, those who vote there have twice the clout of the voters in a district with no prisoners.

Last year, the Prince George Board of Supervisors passed a resolution asking lawmakers to allow localities with a district where the inmate population exceeds 12 percent to exclude the prisoners when redistricting and to permit localities to exclude federal and regional jail inmates, in addition to state prison inmates.

Ingram said his bill simply would allow localities to exclude the inmates, not require them to do so.

"I think this year it will go," he said.

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