Florida federal district court rules prison-based gerrymandering is unconstitutional

I posted about prison-based gerrymandering during the Arizona redistricting hearings back in 2011. See, Prison-based gerrymandering of districts, (Update) Prison-based gerrymandering of districts, and (Update) Prison-based gerrymandering of districts.

This is particularly important in counties that have large prison populations of felony prisoners who have been disenfranchised of the right to vote, like Pinal County.

prison2In practice, prison populations would be counted for purposes of equal apportionment of “residents” per district, but because disenfranchised prisoners no longer possess the right to vote in Arizona, only a small number of eligible voter residents living in a prison district may actually vote.  This is similar to Evenwel v. Abbott, a Texas case currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, which asserts the claim that counting large numbers of ineligible voters (e.g., undocumented immigrants) dilutes the voting power of its residents.

Today the Federal District Court for Florida’s Northern District ruled that such prison-based gerrymandering unconstitutionally dilutes the voting power of its residents. BREAKING: Federal Court Rules Prison Gerrymandering Unconstitutional:

The Federal District Court for Florida’s Northern District ruled Monday that the 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.

The_Gerry-Mander_EditAccording 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.

Legislative District 8 in Pinal County is the subject of a “one person, one vote” redistricting claim in Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

6 responses to “Florida federal district court rules prison-based gerrymandering is unconstitutional

  1. Aleks Kajstura

    Good analysis, but the arguments in the Evenwel case are actually quite different from the Florida situation, hope this analysis of Evenwel and prison gerrymandering helps: Evenwel v. Abbott trips over prison gerrymandering, amicus brief sorts out the issues.

    It all boils down to the fact that ending prison gerrymandering is about where to count incarcerated people, while the Evenwel plaintiffs want to deprive all non-voters of any representation.

    (The confusion in the Florida case stems form the fact that basically none of the state prisoners incarcerated in Jefferson County were Jefferson County residents, so they shouldn’t be counted as residents of any one of the Jefferson County Board districts.)

    • AZ BlueMeanie

      Thank you for the clarification. I should have pointed out, as you do, that the Evenwel plaintiffs want to deprive all non-voters, not just prisoners, of any representation. I did do this in an earlier analysis of the case.

  2. Frances Perkins

    Hi Sam. Got anymore tape measures? The one you gave me wore out.

  3. A double edge sword – if the court says only eligible voters are to be counted, than re-apportionment of Congressional seats and the districts themselves will exclude children, immigrants and all residents not eligible to vote. This could result in a windfall for states with older populations who may receive more Congressional districts and are generally more right leaning in their voting patterns. Who is really going to benefit politically from this decision? I’ll be discussing this case more and sentencing reform on the Sam Kelley Show soon. Tune in and share your views. Weekdays, 3 – 5PM PDT, 1480 AM and 1480KPHX.com simulcast. 602-252-1480 #YourOpinionMatters

  4. Frances Perkins

    If McConnell can just find out how Garland will vote then he can confirm him.

  5. captain*arizona

    where is anton scalia to block this? oh yeah he is burning in hell!