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Federal judge finds Jefferson County’s ‘prison gerrymandering’ unconstitutional

Jefferson Correctional Institution, dc.state.fl.us
Jefferson Correctional Institution, dc.state.fl.us

You may have heard of gerrymandering after Florida’s Legislature was caught manipulating congressional boundaries to favor incumbents, but have you ever heard of prison gerrymandering?

It’s when incarcerated prisoners who can’t vote are counted as residents by state and local officials when drawing electoral maps.  The NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund says the practice artificially inflates the population and political influence of districts where prisons are located.

A federal judge ruled last week that a North Florida county must redraw its voting districts after finding that officials unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts to include state prisoners as residents.

Civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit on behalf of residents against Jefferson County, alleging officials counted about 1,100 non-voting Jefferson Correction Institution inmates as residents when drawing county commission and school board districts. In fact, the inmates made up about 43 percent of the voting-age population in the district, the American Civil Liberties Union says. While they didn’t have a voice, the inmates gave the rest of the district residents more political clout than people who lived in other parts of Jefferson County.

U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker found that the county's districting scheme "doesn't comport with the "one person, one vote" principle" and violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. In today’s world of mass incarceration, Adam Serwer of the American Prospect argues the practice has “eerie parallels” with the ways America counted non-voting enslaved people as three-fifths of a human being, for representation and taxing purposes only.