A federal lawsuit challenges an election system in Jefferson County, Florida, which counts the inmate population of a state prison in the drawing of district maps.
The lawsuit, filed this week by the ACLU of Florida in the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, states that by treating the approximately 1,157 inmates at the Jefferson Correctional Institution as residents for redistricting purposes, Jefferson County is engaging in “prison-based gerrymandering,” violating constitutional voting rights protections by watering down the voting strength of residents in all the other voting districts.
Under the current maps for Jefferson County Commission and School Board elections, enacted in 2013, the incarcerated population at JCI makes up 43.2 percent of the voting age population of Jefferson County’s District 3. Because Florida law removes a person’s right to vote upon receiving a felony conviction, the remaining population in District 3 has an inflated political influence on county elections relative to the other four county districts.
“This is another example of how the ballooning populations of our prisons impacts so many facets of our communities,” stated ACLU of Florida legal director Nancy Abudu. “The public safety and economic costs are already well documented, but here we see how over-incarceration can even erode voting rights across an entire county. 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.”
Four residents of Jefferson County — Kate Calvin, former Jefferson County Commissioner John Nelson, Charles Parrish and Lonnie Griffin — and local civic organization Concerned United People are the plaintiffs in the challenge to the voting scheme. They are represented by attorneys for the ACLU of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute.
“The way the lines are drawn is clearly unfair,” stated Calvin, a resident of Monticello, Florida, whose home is in District 2. “Why should my vote on what happens in our county and our schools have less of an impact than someone else’s?”
“People all across the community are rightfully upset,” stated Nelson, who represented District 2 on the Board of County Commissioners from 2010 to 2014. “Peoples’ votes are their voice. I spoke out against this plan when it came before the Commission because it watered down the voice of so many in our community.”
As of December 31, 2014, the Florida Department of Corrections housed 100,873 inmates in its 56 state prisons. The ACLU is also investigating how inmates are counted for drawing election districts in the localities where some of those other prisons are housed.
The complaint filed today argues that the 2013 Redistricting Plan violates the “one person, one vote” standard of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.