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The Tributary: Jacksonville sued over redistricting map

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Andrew Pantazi
/
The Tributary
The Jacksonville City Council redistricting map packs a majority of Black residents into four out of 14 districts.

Civil-rights groups sued Jacksonville on Tuesday for its City Council redistricting map that they say reduces Black voting power by illegally packing those residents into a few districts.

Tuesday’s redistricting lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida came after the Jacksonville City Council passed the map and Mayor Lenny Curry signed it over the objections of residents who protested the redistricting plan over racial gerrymandering concerns.

The Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP, the Northside Coalition, the ACLU of Florida Northeast Chapter and Florida Rising, along with 10 Jacksonville voters, asked the court to invalidate seven of the city’s 14 council districts and three of Duval County’s seven School Board seats. The city draws each School Board seat automatically by combining two City Council seats.

“Through these district maps, the Jacksonville City Council has attempted to strip us of our right to have our votes matter equally,” said Isaiah Rumlin, president of the Jacksonville NAACP, in a statement. “This represents an assault on one of our most fundamental rights since it determines how our communities will be treated by the city. We must prevent these maps from going into effect so that we can continue advocating for our communities.”

It’s not always unconstitutional to take race into consideration in redistricting, courts have ruled. But plans that intentionally pack more Black voters than is necessary into districts have been struck down as discriminatory.

Artificially inflating the number of Black voters in certain districts beyond what is necessary for them to elect their preferred candidates means Black voters have less influence in the adjacent districts.

“The Council committees and staff charged with drawing new lines obsessed over race at every step of the process, setting specific racial targets and repeatedly rejecting proposals that did not meet those targets,” the lawsuit said. “… Race dictated even the most granular line-drawing decisions in the Enacted Plan.”

The districts, the lawsuit said, “have tortured shapes and fracture neighborhoods as they traverse Jacksonville along racial lines.”

City not surprised

The lawsuit will not surprise city attorneys. In February, most of the organizations that filed Tuesday's lawsuit warned the city of legal action. That letter attached an academic report that showed Black voters could elect their preferred candidates in a district that was about 41% Black.

Yet the four districts range from 61% to 70% Black.

Around the same time, the city received a second letter, this time from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, citing The Tributary's reporting that showed how the city may be racially gerrymandering its districts.

"I anticipate that we will almost certainly be sued over this," wrote Jon Phillips, the city's litigation director, in an email at the time, "so we should start researching and otherwise preparing for that eventuality sooner rather than later."

He assigned three lawyers to prepare for the lawsuit.

Throughout the process, three Black councilmembers in particular — Brenda Priestly Jackson along with Reggie Gaffney and Ju'Coby Pittman — talked about race as a primary factor in redistricting. The city's redistricting consultant, Planning Director Bill Killingsworth, confirmed most of the changes made on the Northside and Westside were to boost the Black percentages of four districts, which meant the three districts surrounding them were each made whiter.

Even as high as their districts' Black share was already, Pittman and Gaffney rejected proposals that would have slightly reduced their districts' Black share.

At one early meeting, Killingsworth said that "one of the reasons that we looked at [District] 7 changing" was because he had "heard multiple times about, about the [Black] percentages and how to either keep them the same or reduce them. And so that played into it as well—the whole percentages of minority per district.

Killingsworth, the lawsuit said, also implied that mayoral candidate Al Ferraro wanted to keep Black voters out of his majority-white council district. Of one proposal that moved Black voters out of Ferraro's district and into Gaffney's, Killingsworth said, "For the same reasons it works for Councilmember Gaffney, it would work for [District 2] Councilmember Ferraro."

Even though the city expected the lawsuit, Priestly Jackson continued to explicitly talk and tweet about the importance of ensuring the four districts maintained their large Black populations.

In one meeting, she admitted that "I don’t know what percentage is needed to ensure that the voters in District 10 are able to actualize their preference."

Goals called inconsistent

Part of the lawsuit's claims is that the City Council's stated goals of redistricting — not crossing the St. Johns River, maintaining the current districts as much as possible and protecting incumbents — were often cast aside in order to increase the Black percentages of the four districts and decrease the percentages in the surrounding white districts.

The committee rejected any options that would've eliminated river crossings, and the committee rejected options that would've kept the current map more intact.

"As the Council sought to maximize the Black concentrations of several districts, it abandoned its stated race-neutral criteria to reach that goal. This ensured that Black voters who might otherwise be placed in the neighboring districts instead were relegated across the border into packed districts."

Priestly Jackson, who served as the Rules Committee chair, was also inconsistent throughout the process, the lawsuit showed.

Near the beginning of the process, Priestly Jackson said that a 68% Black district "is challenging and problematic. It’s kind of packed, whether intentional or not. … We have an obligation to try to bring that down."

Later, after residents complained about the plan's racial packing, she said, "I want to give you my word as a neighbor and pretty much a lifetime resident of Jacksonville that we will come back and … see if those adjustments can be made.”

Then at another meeting, she took a fiercer tone as she rejected the criticism, falsely claiming it only had come from residents who lived outside of the districts.

A February poll found that 89% of Jacksonville residents said they don't trust the City Council to draw fair districts.

'Surgical' gerrymandering alleged

The lawsuit describes a "surgical precision in its race-based division".

One example looks at the splitting of Murray Hill. The redistricting plan splits the neighborhood in two, with the portion with more Black residents going to Black-majority District 9 and the portion with more white residents going to white-majority District 14.

In addition to asking the court to declare the map unconstitutional, the lawsuit said Jacksonville's redistricting plan also violates the city's own charter, which requires a district map that is "arranged in a logical and compact geographic pattern to the extent possible."

It's not clear how quickly a court will respond. The lawsuit asked the court to order special elections if it doesn't rule before the 2023 municipal elections. Last month, the Duval County Supervisor of Elections Office's second-in-command, Robert Phillips, told The Tributary that if a court struck down the map, his office would need a new map in place by the Jan. 9 start of candidate qualifying, though sooner is better.

Lawyers with the ACLU of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Harvard Law School's Election Law Clinic worked on the lawsuit. This appears to be only the second lawsuit the Election Law Clinic has filed since its founding last year.

“These maps must be redrawn to represent all Jacksonville residents equitably,”ACLU of Florida attorney Nicholas Warren said in a statement. “The Jacksonville City Council cannot deprive the people of fair representation by intentionally packing these districts and minimizing the voices of Black voters. … The Council must be held accountable.”

Ben Frazier, the president of the Northside Coalition, said, "In their efforts to dilute Black voting strength, the Jacksonville City Council has taken away our right to an equal say in how our city is run. We won’t stop fighting until we scrap these maps and secure fair districts that protect equal representation for all of the people."\

This story is published through a partnership between WJCT News and The Tributary