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Group Challenges Inclusion Of Prisoners In Voting Districts

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A federal judge heard arguments Wednesday in a case that could affect whether prisoners are counted in drawing voting districts in Florida, an issue that affects voting power particularly in rural areas of the state.

The American Civil Liberties Union and several Jefferson County residents charge the county used "prison-based gerrymandering" in drawing its five county commission and school board districts, each with about 2,950 residents.

The county, with a non-prison population of 13,604 in the 2010 census, counted 1,157 Jefferson Correctional Institute inmates in one district, where they're more than a third of the population.

That gave the eligible voters in the district almost twice the voting power of others in the county, the ACLU says. County residents involved in the lawsuit say it also cut minority voting power.

County officials responded that by law they must use U.S. census counts, which include prisoners, in drawing districts and cited a 2001 Florida attorney general's office opinion.

ACLU lawyers said state law isn't specific on the issue and seven counties have chosen not to count prisoners in drawing districts.

The county commissioner from the affected district, Hines Boyd, is white, but the school board member, Chairman Shirley Washington, is black and said she has represented the district for 18 years. Washington said her district is mostly white, but would be evenly split racially under a plan that didn't include prisoners.

With blacks making up about a third of the county's voting age population, it has one black commissioner out of five, and two black school board members out of five.

Judge Mark Walker didn't announce a decision but asked pointed questions of the county attorneys about prisoners' interaction with local government and the defendants' contention that the legislators rather than courts should decide the issue.

He said he'll rule before the June qualifying period for the 2016 elections.

Jefferson County co-plaintiffs said they believe the map is an example of racial politics.

"It's been unfair from day one and it's still unfair," said co-plaintiff Charles Parrish, who said he sued the county in 1984 to establish a single-member district voting system.

But lawyers for the county said the plaintiffs presented no evidence of any intent to discriminate.

ACLU attorney Randall Berg said he's not aware of another county in Florida that counts inmates and is small enough so that causes a distortion of voting power.

"We're hoping it will establish a principle about one of the ways politicians manipulate the voting process," said ACLU executive director Howard Simon. He said prisoners should be counted where they live, not where they're in custody.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a Texas case over whether all residents including prisoners and aliens, or just eligible voters, should be counted.