Non-voting inmates count as constituents for Mattiello, Frias

Republican Steven Frias, left, and Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello debate on WPRI 12's Newsmakers on Nov. 4, 2016.
Republican Steven Frias, left, and Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello debate on WPRI 12's Newsmakers on Nov. 4, 2016.

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and his Republican challenger Steven Frias have fewer doors to knock on than their peers this election season because upwards of a thousand of their constituents don’t have doors at all – they live behind bars.

The city of Cranston counts the thousands of inmates being held within the walls of the Adult Correctional Institute (ACI) as residents, despite the fact that many aren’t legally allowed to vote.

“It gives people in that district greater power,” argued Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Brown said inmates convicted of felonies cannot legally vote in Rhode Island, and only those awaiting trial or serving time for misdemeanors can exercise the right while behind bars. As for inmates who can vote, the law states that they must cast absentee ballots in their hometowns of origin, which aren’t necessarily the same as the districts the ACI lies in.

The result: even though on paper the legislative districts that cover the ACI have the same amount of residents as other districts, in reality they have fewer voters.

“It creates this perverse situation where districts that have prisons have greater voting strength than others,” said Brown.

This year, the policy has a direct impact on the high-profile race between Mattiello and Frias, which will determine whether the Cranston Democrat remains speaker of the House, arguably the most powerful political position in Rhode Island.

The two candidates “are competing for voters in a smaller pool than in all but one other district in Rhode Island,” John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, wrote in an email. “Prison-based gerrymandering dilutes the votes of every voter who does not live in one of the two House districts containing the ACI.”

The prison falls within Cranston’s Ward 6, House Districts 15 and 16, and Senate District 27. Brown said the ACI houses nearly 3,000 inmates who are counted as residents of those districts and ward, but only about 40 percent of them can legally vote.

In 2014, the Rhode Island ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city of Cranston, alleging the city violated the constitution by counting ACI inmates as residents.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux sided with the ACLU, ruling that the city violated the rights of voters in other districts by including the inmates as residents. Just six months later, however, a federal appeals court overturned the ruling.

Brown said the ACLU likely won’t escalate its legal battle, but will instead look for a legislative solution either on the state or city level.

“Three states, California, New York, and Maryland have done away with the practice of counting prisoners where they are incarcerated, rather than the communities they occupied prior to incarceration,” Marion wrote. “In Rhode Island a bill to do away with this practice, supported by Common Cause, has previously passed the state Senate, but languished in the House of Representatives.”

For the past five legislative sessions, state Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, has introduced that bill, which cleared the full Senate in 2014 and 2015, but was never taken up by the House Judiciary Committee.

When reached by telephone on Friday evening, Frias told Eyewitness News he didn’t have a comment on the topic. “I’m focused on the residents that can vote in our district,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Mattiello’s campaign did not immediately return a request for comment.