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The Recent Prison-Based Gerrymandering Victory in Florida

Cameron Bell

Over the weekend, we learned some exciting news in the effort to end prison gerrymandering: a federal judge struck down a Florida county’s districting plan due to unlawful distortions caused by counting a prison population in the wrong place.  

Judge Mark Walker, in the Northern District of Florida, ruled that the way Jefferson County’s five districts were drawn meant some folks had a significantly greater say in the political process than others. And that violates the Constitution.  

This is a big deal. 

At the heart of the Florida case was the fact that one of the districts in question includes the Jefferson Correctional Institute—a state prison.  Though the people living at JCI can’t vote at the prison location and are totally isolated from the rest of the community, they were counted in that district (instead of in their home communities, which would make much more sense). Those incarcerated at JCI were both unable to vote for a local county representative and unable to effectively communicate with a county representative on any issue—the court called it a “state-run island.” 

Judge Walker noted that those present at JCI weren’t able to meaningfully participate in civic life there—whether by casting a ballot for a local representative, by having local elected officials be responsive to their concerns, or even by experiencing the impact of those officials’ decisions. As a result, he determined that there is no “representational nexus” between those incarcerated at JCI and the county government.

When the prison population is not counted in the county (and ideally counted at their home communities, largely outside of the county), Jefferson County’s districting plan created lopsided districts, with big (and unlawful) differences in how many active constituents were in each district.

This is not just an issue in Florida, but rather a problem across the country. Since 2014, for example, Demos, the Prison Policy Initiative, and the ACLU have been representing clients in Rhode Island in a similar case, Davidson v. City of Cranston.

People who are incarcerated have the strongest ties to friends and family in their home communities, and many can vote there by absentee ballot. Counting these folks where they’re from is fair and accurate.

This decision from the Sunshine State is a good step toward ending prison gerrymandering, and hopefully a sign of what’s to come as the nation moves forward to solve this problem.