Politics

Prison Gerrymandering Lawsuit Accuses Florida County Of Skewing The Vote

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A redistricting scheme in Florida counts inmates at the Jefferson Correctional Institution as nearly half of the voting age population in one Jefferson County district. But none of the 1,157 inmates can actually vote.

A lawsuit filed Monday by the Florida branch of the American Civil Liberties Union argues that the county’s use of “prison gerrymandering,” the practice of counting inmates as residents of their correctional facilities when drawing legislative districts, is inflating the political influence of the non-prison population of District 3 and diluting the political influence of the rest of the county. Inmates at the state prison are factored into the population for County Commission and School Board election districting in Jefferson County even though the state removes an individual’s right to vote when he or she receives a felony conviction.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jefferson County residents who claim the 2013 redistricting plan violates the “one person, one vote” standard of the 14th Amendment by counting the 1,157 inmates as residents of their prison and not their actual hometowns.

The suit alleges that by relying on census figures for redistricting — the U.S. Census has historically counted inmates as residents of their prison — the other 57 percent of voters in District 3 have inflated voting power. The residents are attempting to block the current redistricting plan in Jefferson County and replace it with one that counts prisoners at their home addresses.

“Here we see how over-incarceration can even erode voting rights across an entire county,” ACLU of Florida Legal Director Nancy Abudu said in a statement. “Because of the enormous prison population relative to the total size of Jefferson County, every four actual residents of District 3 have as much political influence in county and school elections as seven voters in the county’s other four districts.”

According to a Prison Policy Initiative report, four out of five U.S. residents still live in states that allow prison gerrymandering. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Maryland’s “No Representation Without Population Act” which counts inmates as residents of their home addresses for redistricting purposes. Similar laws have passed in other states including New York, Delaware, Virginia, Massachusetts, Illinois and California and legislation has been introduced in Connecticut, Kentucky, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Texas.

Florida has one of the strictest felon disenfranchisement laws in the country and more than one in five black adults in the state cannot vote. As the law stands now, anyone currently in prison, on probation or parole and those who have completed their sentences are barred from voting, which comes out to about 10 percent of the state’s population. But in December, a state Democratic lawmaker introduced a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights to most convicted felons upon completion of their sentences. Last month, the Florida Senate Ethics and Elections Committee chairman said he’s open to exploring the legislation.