Reading, Writing, and Redistricting in School Board Districts with Prisons Part II: Florida

by Elena Lavarreda, December 11, 2013  

Florida school boards with large prisons should do all they can to avoid allowing the Census Bureau’s method of counting prison populations to dilute the voices of their constituents. Hamilton County School Board has the ability and know-how to protect the rights of local voters, the time to act is now.

The US Census Bureau counts all incarcerated people as though they were residents of the facilities in which they are detained, rather than at their home addresses. This creates big problems for democracy and places an unfair burden on state and local governments — such as cities, counties, and school boards — to find their own solutions. If state and local governments use unadjusted census data for redistricting, they end up with districts or wards that are unfairly padded with incarcerated people who are not local residents and almost all of whom cannot vote. This phenomenon, called “prison gerrymandering,” has the effect of enhancing the weight of the votes cast by people who live near the prison and diluting the votes of everyone else.

We have documented the impact that prisons have had on Florida counties**, and have highlighted the many counties that have chosen to reject prison gerrymandering by removing incarcerated populations when they draw their board of county commissioner districts. It turns out each county in Florida not only has a board of county commissioners, but a school board district too. Census Bureau counts of large prisons cause the same problems for school board districts as they do for counties, and so I’ve been investigating the extent of prison gerrymandering’s impact on Florida school boards. I’ve already found some school board districts in Florida that draw as much as 30% of their “population” from prisons, which creates huge distortions for local democracy. The good news is that as Florida school boards redistrict, they have the opportunity to follow the example of the Florida counties that have protected their democratic process by removing prison populations from their redistricting data.

Hamilton County School Board, for example, is in the process of redrawing their district lines to make sure that all school board residents have equal say in school board affairs. The Suwannee Democrat recently published a piece on the subject. The article states that School Board Attorney, Jay Willingham “[r]eceived a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union stating they were looking at redistricting nationwide because it is unconstitutional to include prison populations in any redistricting calculations.” With the urging of the Florida ACLU, Hamilton County has become savvy to the impacts of prison counts on the fairness of their School Board districts. Consulting with experts and attorneys, Hamilton County School Board has generated thoughtful redistricting research in order to ensure more equitable school board elections.

In the Suwannee Democrat piece, Willingham notes that if Hamilton County School Board uses the Census population data (which includes those incarcerated in Hamilton Correctional Institution), it could result in districts that violate the constitutional principle of “one person-one vote.” Willingham explains that legislative districts need to be divided evenly according to population to ensure equal representation in school board elections. Otherwise, persons living closer to the prison would have more of say in school board elections, and those living further away from the prison would have their votes diluted. Drawing unfair district lines, Willingham notes, makes the county vulnerable to a voting rights lawsuit, and, “[An incarcerated person is] not what you’d call a voluntary resident of Hamilton County.”

At the meeting, school board demographer Robert Pennock notes that the ideal population per district is 2,960, so “[w]ith 2,877 inmates, the prison could almost be a district by itself…although it would be ‘nuts’ because the prisoners don’t vote.” It’s clear that local experts and attorneys realize that democracy is at stake. But will Hamilton County School Board head their advice?

To protect local democracy, we recommend that Hamilton County School Board districts exclude incarcerated populations from the data used for redistricting. Across the country more than 200 cities, counties, and school boards that contain large prisons reject prison gerrymandering. As noted, drawing districts that include the incarcerated populations contradicts common sense, violates the federal mandate of “one person, one vote,” and runs contrary to the national trend away from prison gerrymandering.

Prison gerrymandering isn’t hard to fix, it just requires planning. We commend Hamilton County for taking the Florida ACLU’s advice seriously. The county has done the work and they’ve put in the planning, and now it’s up to the Hamilton County School Board to make sure that work does not go to waste.

More information about prison gerrymandering in Florida is available on our website.

**In our ongoing research in Florida, we’ve found that it’s common for counties to exclude incarcerated populations for redistricting purposes. So far, we’ve found that Bradford, Fanklin, Gulf, Lafayette, Madison, Okeechobee, and Washington Counties all successfully avoided prison-based gerrymandering by excluding incarcerated populations from their redistricting data.

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