Jefferson County case connected to county redistricting/countywide voting

A federal judge heard arguments last week 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 case has particular bearing on redistricting effforts in Gulf County, as well as any effort to overturn a federal decree establishing single-member district voting.

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 argued. County residents involved in the lawsuit said 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.

One of those, to this point, is Gulf County.

The Jefferson 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 state 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.

The case became central to redistricting in Gulf County after Tallahassee-based consulting attorney Michael Spellman said last year that the county should halt redistricting efforts, which can only be done in an odd-numbered year, until the Jefferson County case was resolved.

That, Spellman said, against the backdrop of a vote from the Board of County Commissioners to pursue what the county needed to do to address an early 1980s federal decree establishing single-member districts.

Spellman, in a presentation to the BOCC and a written report, said to get to federal court the county must “get its house in order” by redistricting in compliance with state dictates.

That meant, adhering to the 2001 attorney general’s opinion which said county’s must count inmates, Spellman said.

Until the BOCC took that step, Spellman said he was not comfortbable pursuing a hearing in federal court to overturn the decree.

Once the ACLU and local plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in Jefferson County, Spellman recommended the BOCC wait and see how the issues of that case were resolved.

Gulf County’s population, according to the 2010 census, was 15,389, including over 3,400 inmates, the majority at Gulf Correctional Institution in Wewahitchka.

Current voting districts are based on the “non-institutionalized” population, which is under 12,000.

Gulf County’s African-American population, which includes inmates, is 18.7 percent. African-Americans make up 32 percent of Florida’s prison population, according to the Department of Corrections.

Spellman, during a presentation, said research required to count inmates could very well show show that District IV may no longer be a “majority-minority” district.

County Commissioner Sandy Quinn, Jr. and school board member Billy Quinn, Jr., the lone African-Americans on both boards, represent District IV.

Additional reporting by Star Editor Tim Croft