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“Prison gerrymandering” tossed by federal court

Noted for the record.

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The Federal District Court for Florida’s Northern District ruled Monday that the prison gerrymandering in Florida’s Jefferson County unconstitutionally dilutes the voting power of its residents. By packing inmates who can’t vote into a district, but counting them when drawing electoral maps, District Judge Mark Walker said the county had violated the “one person, one vote” principle in the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s attorney, Nancy Abudu, argued the case on behalf of Jefferson County residents who felt the prison gerrymandering watered down the strength of their political power by unfairly stacking the deck for residents who live in the same district as the non-voting prisoners.

“If I want to get a road fixed, if I want a law changed, if I want more impact on a school board member or county commissioner, I have more power because my representative has to deal with fewer people,” she told ThinkProgress. “It’s about access and the ability to influence, and making sure officials are responsive to their electorate.”

Abudu emphasized that not only do the inmates in Jefferson County lack the right to vote, the vast majority are not residents of the county, but were arrested in other parts of the state and shipped hundreds of miles away to serve their sentence.

According to the ACLU, of the nearly 1,200 inmates in the correctional center, only nine were convicted in Jefferson County. Yet the inmates make up a whopping 43 percent of the voting age population in District 3. “It skews the numbers so dramatically in this instance,” Abudu told ThinkProgress.

This may or may not have an effect in Texas at some point, but it is an issue that has come up in the Legislature before. Most Texas prisons are in lightly-populated rural areas, and an awful lot of prisoners come from big urban counties like Harris and Dallas, but as in Florida they count towards the population of those rural counties, where they neither reside or can vote. That does skew how districts are drawn, mostly at the State Rep level since those are the smallest ones. Harold Dutton has championed this issue in the Lege in past years, and I’m sure he’ll be back at it again. I don’t think the effect is that much, and unless SCOTUS eventually upholds this ruling (or a lawsuit is filed and successfully litigated here) it won’t affect Texas, but this is out there and it may mean something to us one of these days. Daily Kos has more.

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