A federal judge ruled Monday that prisoners can’t be counted for population or in drawing up boundaries of voting districts in Florida, a decision that could have repercussions statewide. The decision was based on the drawing of district maps for county commission and school board seats in Jefferson County, located in northwest Florida. According to the Florida American Civil Liberties Union, the decision by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker marks the first time a federal court has issued such an opinion on “prison-based gerrymandering.” The ACLU and several Jefferson County residents filed the lawsuit after the county – which had a non-prison population of 13,604 in the 2010 census – counted 1,157 Jefferson Correctional Institute inmates in one district.
That amounted to more than a third of the population of that district and gave the eligible voters in the district almost twice the voting power of others in the county.
County residents involved in the lawsuit say it also diluted minority voting power. According to census figures, blacks make up about one third of the county’s voting age population. There is one black on the five-person county commission and two blacks on the five-person county school board.
During arguments made before Walker in January, county officials said that by law they must use census counts, which include prisoners, in drawing districts and cited a 2001 Florida attorney general’s office opinion.