WASHINGTON -- A prominent civil rights group is suing a Florida county for using its prison population to boost some voters' political power.
Prisoners can't vote. But in Jefferson County's District 3, inmates at the local facility are included in the count of residents, giving the district's voting residents more political influence.
The Florida arm of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Monday arguing that this arrangement violates the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal representation.
In 2013, Jefferson County redrew the lines of its five districts, which are used for county commission and school board elections. Though the districts should represent virtually equal populations, Jefferson Correctional Institution inmates account for over 43 percent of the voting-age population in District 3. Because each district elects a county commissioner, who in turn has one vote on the board, the ACLU contends that District 3 voters technically have greater electoral power.
In other words, four votes in a District 3 election are equivalent in influence to seven votes in each of the county’s other four districts.
“What’s happening is that the [District 3 commissioner] actually represents a lot fewer residents,” Nancy Abudu, the ACLU’s legal director in Florida, told The Huffington Post. “But his voice, his vote on any commission business is equal to any other county commissioner.”
“The public safety and economic costs are already well documented, but here we see how over-incarceration can even erode voting rights across an entire county,” Abudu said in a press release.
Jefferson County commissioners did not respond to The Huffington Post's request for comment.
The suit is being brought by four Jefferson County residents, one of whom is a former county commissioner who voted against the 2013 redistricting.
The plaintiffs appear confident. Randall Berg, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said he believes the judge may forgo a trial and deem the 2013 lines unconstitutional.
“If the facts are as alleged in the complaint, there shouldn’t be any dispute over if [the 2013 district lines] violate Florida law as well as the Constitution,” Berg said.
Critics assert that prison-based gerrymandering warps voter representation by transferring power from African-Americans, who make up 41 percent of the U.S. prison population, to whiter, rural areas where many prisons are located. Though the Florida lawsuit is being brought on 14th Amendment grounds, Abudu noted that the current district lines also misrepresent Jefferson County’s racial breakdown.
“The reason why this plan is also of concern is because the way it was drawn makes it look like the black population in District 3 is a lot stronger than it is,” Abudu said. “It gives the impression that [African-Americans] will be able to elect their candidates of choice, when in fact they’re a lot smaller when you discount the prison.”