Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Columbia County School District Redistricting: On Hold for Now

 On March 19, 2016, in the case of Calvin et al. v. Jefferson County, U.S. Federal District Court Judge Mark E. Walker ruled that Jefferson County's election districts were the result of "prison gerrymandering" and were unconstitutional. It appears that Columbia County is facing the same issues. On April 12, 2016, School Board Attorney Guy Norris addressed the School Board on the issue. What follows is a summary of his remarks. (Introduction by the publisher)

There are more considerations to redistricting than just math. Jefferson County's County Commission and School Board had been working on proposed revisions during the pendency of that case, which commenced in 2015, to settle on the proposed revised map submitted to the Court on April 4, 2016.

The provisions of F.S. 1001.36(2) prohibit School Boards from redistricting during even-numbered, i.e., election years. In Columbia County, the County Charter prohibits redistricting during even-numbered years.

To date, there have been no challenges to the voting district boundaries for Columbia County, its School Board or County Commission, based upon the voting district boundaries created by application of the 2010 certified Census results.

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida opinion issued March 19, 2016 is specific to Jefferson County, Florida.

Columbia County is not located in the United States Northern District of Florida.  Therefore, the Federal trial court judge’s opinion is not binding on the Columbia County School Board, County Commission, or Supervisor of Elections.

The significant disparities existing in the number of qualified electors in some of the School Board Districts of Jefferson County, when excluding for the state prisoner population, is significantly larger than the disparity which may presently exist in Columbia County.

There are additional demographic factors and other issues concerning the location of voting district boundaries recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court which may not be entirely consistent with the narrow issue addressed by the particular holding of the Federal trial judge in the Jefferson County case.

The State Prisoner Population in Columbia County is not eligible to vote. Columbia County’s inclusion of these state prisoners in the population of the County Voting Districts utilized in 2012 and 2014, and anticipated to be used in 2016, do not deprive any qualified elector (voter) of the County, as used in Florida statutes section 1001.361, from voting for the School Board candidates for the voting district in which they currently reside.

The School Board has historically followed the voting district boundaries of the County.

Recently, the County has expressed an intention to address the issues presented by the inclusion of the prison population in 2017 in compliance with the County Charter requiring changes to the voting districts to occur only in odd-numbered years.

Consistent with the United States Constitution Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, the Florida Statutes § 1001.36 requires School Board voting districts to be equal in population, as nearly as is practicable. Florida Statutes §1001.36 (2) authorizes School Board’s to change voting districts as it deems necessary at any meeting of the School Board, but such changes are required to be made only in odd-numbered years.

When excluding the State prisoner population in Columbia County, Districts 1, 2, 3, and 5 remain within the 10% population disparity tolerance level considered "minor" while only District 4 may be outside this minor tolerance level by less than 5%.

It is possible that a unilateral change in the voting districts by the School Board for the 2016 election could potentially deprive a voter from voting for a School Board Member in both the 2016 election and in the 2018 election. Additionally, a unilateral change in the voting districts by the School Board for the 2016 elections could also potentially disrupt the voting precincts locations established by the Supervisor of Elections.

On April 12, I recommended that following the 2016 elections the School Board join the County Commission and the Supervisor of Elections in reviewing the existing voting districts based upon the 2010 census.

This approach will allow for a thorough analysis to be performed ensuring compliance with the federal and Florida laws relating to voting districts. Additionally, it will avoid disruption of the current voting districts for which qualifying has already commenced; avoid disruption of the Supervisor of Elections' precincts location plan; and avoid the potential for disenfranchising any voter for the School Board elections in both 2016 and 2018.

Including the prison population is consistent with and recognizes the 2001 Advisory Opinion of the Florida Attorney General.

The apparent disparity in the total ideal Columbia County district population number caused is outside the minor range by a minor percentage in only one existing Columbia County voting district, which is in stark contrast to the tremendous disparity in non-prison population present in the Jefferson County case. 

Guy Norris is the Columbia County School Bd. Attorney

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