At a recent meeting of the Hamilton County School Board, Director Robert Pennock from the Center for Demography and Population Health from Tallahassee gave a presentation with an analysis of existing voting districts to school board members and county commissioners. Also in attendance were County Clerk Greg Godwin, County Coordinator Louie Goodin, County Attorneys John McCormick and Cliff Adams, School Board Attorney Jay Willingham and Supervisor of Elections Laura Dees.
“I’ve been hired by the county commission to evaluate the existing voting districts in the county to determine whether or not there should be redistricting done,” said Pennock.
Pennock completed his analysis several weeks ago and showed a color coded map of the five districts, noting that even though Districts 4 and 5 are the largest geographically, they don’t have the largest population. Districts 1 and 2 have the larger populations and District 3 is by far the smallest district with the smallest population.
School board members are District 1, Damon Deas; District 2, Gary Godwin; District 3, Jeanie Daniels; District 4, Johnny Bullard; and District 5, Sammy McCoy. County Commissioners are District 1, Beth Burnam; District 2, Josh Smith; District 3, Robert Brown; District 4, Randy Ogburn; and District 5, Buster Oxendine.
“One of the objectives of redistricting is to balance the districts population-wise,” said Pennock.
Pennock showed a bar graph of the five districts that further demonstrated his point of the imbalance. Districts 3, 4 and 5, he said, all need to be expanded, while Districts 1 and 2 need to be shrunk. The goal is to reach an ideal population average of about 2,960 people per district.
Another issue Pennock pointed out is the prison population in District 2 where Hamilton Correctional Institution is located and the fact prisoners do not vote.
“The U.S. Census counts people in correctional institutions as part of the county population,” Pennock explained.
The 2010 census showed 2,877 inmates at Hamilton CI, he said, which is why District 2 shows such a high population of 5,787, as compared to District 1 with 3,599, District 3 with 1,442, District 4 with 1,827 and District 5 with 2,144.
“It sort of creates an imbalance there,” he said. “Something to seriously consider is how should the county deal with the inmates in the prison?”
Pennock showed a second bar graph without the prison population in District 2, which brought it down to 2,910, leaving District 1 with the highest population. The average target population for the five districts would also change to 2,384 when not counting the prison population, although there is still an imbalance across the county.
With 2,877 inmates, the prison could almost be a district by itself, Pennock said, although it would be “nuts” because the prisoners don’t vote.
Another important aspect of the redistricting process takes into account the minority population in each district, which, he said, is also imbalanced. Census blocks and district boundaries are another thing that needs to be taken into consideration, he added.
Pennock said now that this phase of the analysis is done, they will be looking at options and taking suggestions as to how to balance out the districts.
“We have to do some substantial movement of lines,” said Pennock. “When you have populations that are so different, just a little moving of the lines is not going to do much. You have to change the geography quite a bit.”
The challenge is moving district lines to balance the population and keep the minority percentages balanced, as well, Pennock explained. Any decisions on changes to the districts will be made by the county commission and school boards, he pointed out.
“I’m the technical guy,” he said. “I’m looking for direction from the school board and the county commission. I’m getting direction from Mr. McCormick and Mr. Willingham, but ultimately the boards are the decision makers.”
Commissioner Randy Ogburn wanted clarification on who is pushing for the redistricting. Attorney McCormick said the directive comes from the Florida Constitution and the federal courts.
School Board Attorney Jay Willingham said most counties review district balances after each census, but Hamilton County hasn’t done it for about 30 years. ‘One man-one vote’ is the leading aspect of redistricting, he continued, which means legislative districts need to be divided according to population, so that each person has an equal amount of representation in government. Otherwise, the county could risk lawsuits if the district lines are challenged.
Willingham said he received 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. Willingham agreed that the inmates shouldn’t be counted.
“They’re not what you’d call a voluntary resident of Hamilton County,” Willingham said. “They’ve lost their civil rights.”
The next phase of the redistricting process is for the boards to come to a decision as to how they plan to balance the districts, or if they plan to leave things as is.