Jacksonville highlights conflicts over local gerrymandering

Author: Ayanna Alexander / AP
Marcella Washington, a plaintiff in a local gerrymandering case, speaks in Jacksonville, Fla., Jan. 18, 2023. A protracted legal fight over how city council districts were drawn in Jacksonville, Florida, reflects an aspect of redistricting that often remains in the shadows. Political map-drawing for congressional and state legislative seats captures wide attention after new census numbers are released every 10 years. No less fierce are the battles over the way voting lines are drawn in local governments, for city councils, county commissions and even school boards. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

Not far from the postcard images of Jacksonville — the white sand beaches, the riverfront fountain, the upscale shopping district — is another side of the city.

Here, neighborhood roads are pitted with potholes and sometimes unpaved. Weeds swallow abandoned cars in empty lots. Grocery stores are sparse.

The people who live in this other Jacksonville are mostly Black, and many of them lay blame for their neighborhoods’ lack of services on the city’s politics. They point to a lack of representation resulting in part from the way the districts have been drawn for the city council, the decision-making body for Jacksonville’s 950,000 residents.

“It’s about diluting Black representation, Black power and change that needs to happen in the Black community,” said Moné Holder, a city resident who holds a leadership role at Florida Rising, a local voting rights group that focuses on communities of color. “Others may tell a different story as to why it is, but we see it in the lack of resources that go into those communities.”

A group of Jacksonville residents and local civil rights organizations sued the city last year, alleging that the council’s redistricting maps packed Black communities into four of the 19 council districts, five of which are at large.

A U.S. district court judge last fall ruled in their favor and ordered the maps redrawn. Advocates said the city returned with more of the same, and in December the same court ordered that a map proposed by the advocates be used for Jacksonville’s elections this spring.

“There’s just naturally an incentive to keep things the same, and that’s what you saw in the Jacksonville process,” said Nick Warren, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida.

The council argued in its court filings that the advocates’ latest plan would be the third council map in less than a year and would “cause voter confusion and undermine voter confidence.” The court rejected the appeal in early January, so voters will be casting ballots in new council districts for the city’s March elections.

The fight over how Jacksonville’s districts are drawn reflects an aspect of redistricting that often remains in the shadows. Redistricting for congressional and state legislative boundaries captures wide attention after new census numbers are released every 10 years, as the two major political parties seek mapmaking advantages that will help them retain or regain power at the federal or state level — a process known as gerrymandering.

No less fierce are the battles over the way voting lines are drawn in local governments, city councils, county commissions and even school boards.

Conflicts over local redistricting erupted into public view late last year when a leaked audiotape revealed how Latino members of the Los Angeles City Council were plotting to gerrymander council districts in a way that would boost political power for their community at the expense of traditionally Black ones.

The exchange was punctuated with racist and graphic language and has widened racial fissures within the city, led the state Department of Justice to announce an investigation and prompted a legislative effort to remove the council’s redistricting power.

“Self-interest should not be the deciding factor,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic state Sen. María Elena Durazo. “It should be the Voting Rights Act, the California Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.”

When the city was going through the redistricting process, Los Angeles City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson recalled bringing up topics important to his constituents related to what he termed the “One Black district” but said he was ignored.

“Now I understand that that was on purpose,” he said.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling a decade ago gutting a section of the federal Voting Rights Act gave state and local governments tremendous freedom to change voting procedures and to redraw political boundaries, even if redistricting was done in a way that diluted the voting power of minority communities. Previously, some states and local governments were required to get approval from the Justice Department before making significant voting-related changes.

The gerrymandering for local government bodies receives far less attention than congressional or state legislative gerrymandering, in part because few local groups have the money and expertise to bring lawsuits against what they perceive as unfair maps.

Jacksonville is an exception. Local branches of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union teamed up with community civil rights groups to challenge the maps the City Council approved in March 2022.

Some community activists trace the city’s redistricting problems to a 1968 consolidation with Duval County, which allowed the city to grow but also changed its racial dynamics. At the time, it was hoped that a mix of predominantly Black council districts and at-large council positions would help boost Black representation.

Yet in the more than a half-century since the merger, just six Black residents have served in the at-large positions, which are elected on a citywide basis, and just two of those were Democrats, according to research by Marcella Washington, a retired Florida State College at Jacksonville political science professor who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Black residents made up at least 40% of Jacksonville’s total population at the time of the consolidation, and today they account for a little over 30%.

While seven members of today’s Jacksonville council are Black, Washington said they don’t always vote in the interest of the Black community. As one example, she cited contentious votes over whether to remove Confederate monuments across the city. Other residents noted additional concerns in predominantly Black areas of Jacksonville they feel the council does not prioritize — city properties that are overgrown, problems with water and sewer service, and inadequate services for homeless people.

Councilman Rory Diamond was the lone vote against the council’s original map, saying it was designed to protect incumbents. But he also is critical of the redrawn map to be used in the upcoming elections because he believes it could have the unintended consequence of “destroying African-American representation on the City Council.” Other council members declined to comment, citing the litigation.

Local activists say forcing Black residents into a handful of council districts has led to a sense in those communities that their voice doesn’t matter. That has made it difficult to get them engaged politically, said Rosemary McCoy, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and CEO of the Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters, a nonprofit that registers new voters.

“We understand that when you pack a group of people together, then these people don’t have a say. Their vote happens to be wasted,” McCoy said. “I ask people to sign petitions to put things on the ballot … and many times they’re telling us, ‘My vote don’t matter. My vote don’t count. Why should I vote? Nothing’s going to change.’”

Ben Frazier, another plaintiff in the case and CEO of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, which focuses on injustice, said he would like the court fight in Jacksonville to inspire other groups around the country to challenge local redistricting maps when they appear to be drawn unfairly.

“I’m hopeful that there will be other cities and other states who look at Jacksonville and say Jacksonville moved against them, and maybe we should, too,” he said.

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