FJI & ACLU Succeed in Having Prison Gerrymandering in Jefferson County Declared Unconstitutional

After a year of litigation, a federal court has ruled that district maps for elected offices in Jefferson County, Florida, which included state prisoners, unconstitutionally diluted the voting power of voters in the other districts. In an order issued in a lawsuit filed on behalf of residents of Jefferson County by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute (FJI), U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker held that the practice known as “prison gerrymandering” violated the constitutional rights of Jefferson County residents. It is the first federal court in the country to issue such an opinion.

“We are thrilled to have won this decision on behalf of the people of Jefferson County, and to have struck a blow against one of the collateral effects of mass incarceration,” stated Nancy Abudu, Legal Director of the ACLU of Florida. “Judge Walker’s ruling holds that political maps can’t be drawn in a way that exploits the exploding populations of our prisons by using inmates who have no political influence over local politics to dilute the voting strength of local residents. Those who engage in prison gerrymandering should be on notice that this unconstitutional practice is subject to challenge.”

Attorneys for the ACLU and FJI represented 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 (CUP) in the challenge to the voting scheme. The lawsuit was filed in March of 2015.

“I’m very glad that the current redistricting map will be tossed out,” stated Calvin, a resident of Monticello, Florida, whose home is in District 2.  “This has always been about what is fair and the Court’s decision sets the stage for Jefferson County to finally have fair voter districts.”

Prison gerrymandering occurs when state and local governments include prisoners as residents in their redistricting plans for purposes of drawing their election lines in such a way that reduces the voting strength of actual residents in the area.

Under the maps used for County Commission and School Board elections, enacted in 2013, the inmates at Jefferson Correction Institution (JCI) make up 43.2% of the voting age population of Jefferson County’s District 3. The remaining population in District 3 therefore wield much more political influence over local politics than residents living in the other four county districts.

The court’s ruling found that Jefferson County’s inclusion of the large JCI inmate population violates the “one person, one vote” provision of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.  The prisoners at JCI – the overwhelming majority of whom are not from Jefferson County — cannot be considered constituents or residents of the district because they are not in the district of their own volition, nor are their living conditions impacted by the officeholders who, under the current map, are said to “represent” them.

“This ruling is a major win for the principle of ‘one person, one vote,” stated Randall Berg, director of the Florida Justice Institute. “Judge Walker’s ruling is a resounding affirmation of The Fourteenth Amendment rights of the people in Jefferson County whose representation was being diluted by this system. With roughly 100,000 people incarcerated in Florida state prisons alone, the process of prison gerrymandering must come to an end.”

Plaintiff Charles Parrish, a long-time civil rights activist and citizen of District 4, stated, “Jefferson County has a long history of discriminatory voting practices and the struck down 2013 plan is just another example of that. Watering down people’s right to vote is wrong, and I am very happy that new maps that treat all of us equally will now be drawn.”

The order states that the county must submit a proposed map that complies with the ruling by April 4, 2016. Otherwise, the court will draw its own interim plan.

Background: FJI and the ACLU of Florida filed a federal lawsuit challenging an election system in Jefferson County, Florida, which counts the inmate population of a state prison in the drawing of district maps. By treating the approximately 1,157 prisoners at the Jefferson Correctional Institution (JCI) as residents for redistricting purposes, Jefferson County was 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 County Commission and School Board elections, enacted in 2013, the incarcerated population at JCI makes up 43.2% of the voting age population of Jefferson County’s District 3.

In September 2015, the plaintiffs filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, asking the Court to declare the district maps unconstitutional.  It was granted in March 2016.

You can read the original ACLU Press Release or press coverage of this case.

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