Judge strikes down 'prison gerrymandering' as unconstitutional
A federal judge is ordering a new redistricting plan for county voting districts in North Florida's Jefferson County after finding that the county illegally gerrymandered the districts by including state prison inmates as legal residents, which they are not because they can't vote.
As a reuslt, the judge found, the voting power of voters in the four other voting districts is diluted in a violation of the principle of "one man, one vote" guaranteed by the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Plaintiffs in the case say the ruling by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker is the first "prison gerrymandering" decision of its kind in U.S. history.
"What we won in our case," said Howard Simon of the American Civil Liberties Union, "is not whether prisoners should be counted, but where prisoners should be counted." Simon says the judge's ruling supports counting inmates where they are legal residents, which could have an impact on the next legislative and congressional redistricting after the 2020 census. Florida's prison population of about 98,000 is the third-largest in the country.
Under the maps used in county commission and school board elections in Jefferson, nearly half of the "residents" of District 3 are inmates at Jefferson Correctional Institution in Monticello. Only 200 of the 2,400 "residents" of District 3, or 8.5 percent, are not prison inmates, the judge wrote. As a result, plaintiffs argued successfully, the remaining population in District 3 wields much more political influence than residents in the other four districts.
In his 86-page ruling dated Saturday, Walker wrote: "The inmates at JCI (Jefferson Correctional Institution), unlike aliens, children, etc. living in Jefferson County, are not meaningfully affected by the decisions of the boards. To say they are 'constituents' of the board representatives from District 3 is to diminish the term 'constituent' ... Such treatment greatly dilutes the voting and representational strength of denizens in other districts. Jefferson County's districting scheme for its board of county commissioners and school board therefore violates the equal protection clause."
The case was brought by the Florida Justice Institute and the ACLU of Florida on behalf of four county residents and a citizens' group Concerned United People. The defendants in the case are the Jefferson County Commission, the county school board and the county supervisor of elections.