Justice

BREAKING: Federal Court Rules Prison Gerrymandering Unconstitutional

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Inmates in Florida prison's can't vote, but are counted when drawing voting maps.

The Federal District Court for Florida’s Northern District ruled Monday that prison gerrymandering in Florida’s Jefferson County unconstitutionally dilutes the voting power of its residents. By packing inmates who can’t vote into a district, but counting them when drawing electoral maps, District Judge Mark Walker said the county had violated the “one person, one vote” principle in the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s attorney, Nancy Abudu, argued the case on behalf of Jefferson County residents who felt the prison gerrymandering watered down the strength of their political power by unfairly stacking the deck for residents who live in the same district as the non-voting prisoners.

“If I want to get a road fixed, if I want a law changed, if I want more impact on a school board member or county commissioner, I have more power because my representative has to deal with fewer people,” she told ThinkProgress. “It’s about access and the ability to influence, and making sure officials are responsive to their electorate.”

Abudu emphasized that not only do the inmates in Jefferson County lack the right to vote, the vast majority are not residents of the county, but were arrested in other parts of the state and shipped hundreds of miles away to serve their sentence.

According to the ACLU, of the nearly 1,200 inmates in the correctional center, only nine were convicted in Jefferson County. Yet the inmates make up a whopping 43 percent of the voting age population in District 3. “It skews the numbers so dramatically in this instance,” Abudu told ThinkProgress.

The county had argued before the court that the maps should remain the way they are, saying that because the county has a role in managing the prison, it should get to count the inmates as residents. But the judge, and Abudu, disagreed.

“They don’t finance the prison. The prison is run by the state,” she said. “Even the little bit of services they provide, they get reimbursed for that. The county has no responsibility whatsoever for the operation of the prison.”

“What we do know,” she continued, “is that the inmates service the county through free labor. They have formal and informal contracts with the county to have the inmates fix up parks, clean roads, and do other work that the county would otherwise have to pay someone to do.”

Unless the county appeals, officials will have to redraw their voting maps before the qualifying election in June for commissioners and school board members.

Florida officials have also been accused of pushing a prison gerrymandering scheme on the federal level, and were caught by reporters this year discussing how such a tactic could be used to unseat African-American Congress member Corrine Brown (D-FL). The maps, which are also being challenged in court, put 18 prisons in Brown’s district, driving up the population count with inmates who can’t legally cast a ballot.