GOP Lawmaker Says Prisoners Could Give District Five To Republicans

Sep 23, 2015

A state lawmaker's comments may put the question of prison populations back on the front burner in upcoming redistricting debates.
Credit Thomas Hawk via Flickr /

The Republican Party has committed an unforced error on the eve of two pivotal court hearings in Florida’s congressional district revision.  A state lawmaker was caught on tape touting the importance of prisons in unseating a Democratic incumbent.

Not quite a month ago, Florida’s Republicans gathered for their quarterly meeting in Tampa.  A special session to redraw Florida’s congressional districts had just fallen apart, so naturally the topic came up.  But some of the comments made by Fernandina Beach Representative Janet Adkins are casting a negative light on the process.  Politico Florida broke the story.  One of the organizations reporters was able to get audio from a closed door meeting.

“When you look at drawing that east west corridor,” Adkins asks, “what’s the primary industry in North Florida?”

One attendee offers timber, a bit cautiously, before everyone joins Adkins on the answer: prisons.

The state Supreme Court was critical of past Republican efforts to boost District Five’s black population, and directed the Legislature to redraw it along an east west axis.  In the recording, Adkins says this could deliver the district to Republicans.

“You’re now reducing the percentage of minorities within that district,” Adkins explains, “and you’ve drawn it in such a fashion that perhaps a majority, or maybe not a majority, but a number of them will live in the prisons, thereby not being able to vote.”

Adkins even singles out Danny Norton from the party’s Baker County delegation.

“Danny, you—you can be the person that will help get rid of Corrine Brown,” Adkins says.

“Well it’s disturbing for a number of reasons,” Nancy Abudu says.  She’s director of legal operations with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. 

“Prison gerrymandering is where you have the intersection of mass incarceration and voting rights,” Abudu says.

“When you have someone who actually wants to take advantage of the racial bias in the criminal justice system,” she goes on, “and apply that racial bias to the political or voting context, you have—it just exacerbates the whole situation, makes it even more plain, kind of, the racial undertone behind this strategy.”

Abudu says prison gerrymandering gives some populations an outsized voice.  Even though their elected officials represent the same number of people, they’re actually serving fewer voters.  Abudu is litigating a case in Jefferson County.  She says in one of its municipal districts 40 percent of the voting age population is in jail.

“The remaining 60 percent of that population, voting population in district three, carries as much weight as the 100 percent in all of the other districts,” Abudu says.

Perhaps adding insult to injury, the thought process behind Adkins’ comments is exactly what Corrine Brown—District Five’s current representative—was afraid of when she spoke before state lawmakers in August.

“They knew it was a non-performing district,” Brown said at the time.  “They knew.  There’s 18 prisons in that district.  And you’re counting them.  You’re counting them.  But they can’t vote.  And in Florida if you’re a felon you can’t vote.”

Attorneys for the Legislature and voting rights groups will meet in court again Thursday to argue over which congressional map should go to the Florida Supreme Court for final approval.