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Does One Person One Vote Include Non-Voters?

Civil rights activists are challenging Jefferson County's municipal districts in federal court.
Jenn Greiving via Wikimedia Commons

On its face, the one person one vote principle seems simple.  But reports a federal case against Jefferson County is a reminder the devil is in the details.

Civil right groups are challenging Jefferson County’s municipal districts.  The plaintiffs allege the current boundaries give some residents greater impact at the ballot box.  The problem is prison populations.  In Jefferson, forty three percent of district three’s population is behind bars.  Attorney Jerry Curington defends the county’s decision to count prisoners.  He says even if they can’t vote prisoners haven’t lost the right to representation.

“These inmates deal with correctional officers every day—twenty four seven,” Curington says.  “They can’t escape them and it’s important to them that they have a good school system so these correctional officers understand constitutional principles and the rights of prisoners.

Attorneys on the other side aren’t ready to grant this argument—they’re skeptical prisoners are really represented in local government.  Florida Justice Institute director Randall Berg wants the county to remove prisoners from district population counts.  He argues the Jefferson County district goes way beyond standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court.  

“The Supreme Court has said they can be a—ten percent is the benchmark,” Berg says, “and if it goes above ten percent then you have a problem with one person one vote.”

The percentage of prisoners in Jefferson County’s district is more than four times that.  Meanwhile the question of counting prison populations seems likely to play a major role in another district case.  U.S. Congresswoman Corinne Brown is challenging a revised version of Florida’s congressional map.  Her district will now include more than a dozen prisons.