If you cast your mind back to the blurry, early months of the coronavirus pandemic, you may recall filling out a form from the Census Bureau. Maybe you filled it out online; maybe you filled out a paper version. Maybe a friendly census worker knocked on your door reminding you of your civic duty to acknowledge how many people live in your household.
Either way, the Census Bureau is in the middle of crunching those hundreds of millions of data points, which governments from Maine to Hawaii will use to determine the next decade of representation.
What might it mean for the next 10 years of politics here in Jacksonville?
In a typical census year, the City Council president appoints a redistricting committee to pore over census data and redraw Jacksonville’s 14 City Council districts and five board districts that comprise the Duval County Public Schools system, according to changes in population since the last time around.
This year’s committee is bipartisan, headed by Councilman Garrett Dennis, a Democrat. Other members are Democrats Brenda Priestly Jackson and Reggie Gaffney, Republicans Randy White and Randy DeFoor, and Duval County Public Schools board members Kelly Coker and Darryl Willie.
They are advised by an eight-member staff including Jacksonville Property Appraiser Jerry Holland, Director of Planning and Development Bill Killingsworth, and members of the Office of General Counsel.
The redistricting committee creates districts that — by law — must be approximately equal in population and relatively geographically concise.
All told, it’s a tricky math problem, made more so because council members are also members of political parties with some degree of interest in carving districts that set their party up to win.
Once the committee approves a new map, it goes to the City Council for approval.
This year, though, the census data has been delayed because of the coronavirus, so Jacksonville’s Redistricting Committee has not done much of anything.
In a Thursday morning meeting, committee members Priestly Jackson and DeFoor wondered aloud if it was even worth it to continue holding meetings because the data won’t be released until the end of September.
Still, the committee members have been keeping themselves occupied learning about the redistricting process — of course, it’s been a decade since this process last took place, and none of these particular politicians were involved with drawing the current districts.
“Blocks are the smallest population measure,” Jacksonville planner supervisor James Reed explained to the legislators at Thursday’s meeting. “Their boundaries are determined by a combination of natural and physical boundaries, like railroads and streams, and nonvisible boundaries, such as city and county boundaries.” Urban census blocks, he continued, are likely to be just that — a city block. But rural or exurban census blocks might be more oddly shaped in the interest of carving units of up to 50-100 people.
Current committee members have another reason to be unenthusiastic.
In July, City Council leadership will turn over from the current council president, Democrat Tommy Hazouri, to the next council president, Republican Sam Newby. Newby will get to select a new redistricting committee if he so chooses.
By the time the Census Bureau is finished with the data, the current committee members might not be on the committee.
"With Republicans controlling 13 out of 19 council seats, they will ultimately get whatever map they put together – as long as they have the votes,” said former Democratic state house candidate and Jacksonville political observer Joshua Hicks. “Republicans on the council will try to redraw the map to favor themselves and their party, but I also believe they will run into problems with some of the districts because demographic changes since 2010 will make it difficult. Duval is, after all, now a blue county and a county that is quickly trending bluer."
What Else Is There To Know?
The redistricting committee has another factor to consider when it’s divvying up census tracts: Jacksonville requires there to be four “minority-access districts,” areas that are predominantly African American, to increase the likelihood that there are people of color on City Council. Those districts are 7 through 10, currently held by council members Gaffney, Dennis, Priestly Jackson, and Ju’Coby Pittman, all of whom are Black, and all of whom are Democrats.
Hicks said districts have typically been drawn so that Democratic voters mostly end up in Districts 7 through 10, with the other 10 districts reliably Republican.
“But, with the growth of Democratic voters in Duval since 2010 – in all parts of the county – this will be much more difficult to accomplish than it has been in the past,” Hicks said. “Ultimately though, some of these races will not come down to party politics, but instead the candidates, and whether voters believe they have their best interests in mind. Jacksonville voters have a history of voting for the better candidate and not always for a political party."
There’s also this tidbit: The Duval Democratic Party is expected to vote in the coming weeks on the results of an internal investigation into Party Chair Daniel Henry. The investigation stemmed from a complaint filed by City Councilman Dennis, the head of the redistricting committee. He claimed that Henry had met improperly with City Councilman Rory Diamond, a Republican, and that Diamond had offered him a deal: Part of the district currently represented by DeFoor could be carved out in a way that would make it harder for her to win re-election and easier for Henry to get into City Council.
The grievance committee’s report did not confirm the specifics of Dennis’ allegations about Diamond’s offer and both Henry and Diamond have denied wrongdoing in the incident.
Contact Sydney Boles at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.