A newsletter covering redistricting, the Census and the fight for political power

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Jacksonville City Council’s new maps will likely favor Republicans

Democrats on Jacksonville’s City Council prioritized keeping the city’s already-gerrymandered map.

By Andrew Pantazi
The Tributary

Jacksonville’s City Council is on the verge of approving a redistricting plan that will continue the current map’s heavy bias favoring local Republicans.

Jacksonville’s Democratic council members on the Northside and Westside have prioritized two main principles: make as little change as possible and protect incumbents as much as possible. By doing so, City Council — barring a major political shift in Duval County — will likely remain majority Republican, and could remain two-thirds Republican even when Democrats win countywide races.

City Council members have also kept to a truce where each politician entrusts the details of individual districts to the council member who currently holds office there, allowing those elected to an already-gerrymandered map to declare the map has worked fine for them in the past and should continue.

How those districts are drawn, however, affects not just the people running in that district but everyone in the county since the makeup of City Council decides how the city’s $1.4 billion budget, which passed last night, gets allocated. 

Last night’s budget included half-a-billion dollars for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, half-a-million dollars for one councilman’s nonprofit and $100,000 each for three other council member’s nonprofits.

The council has not invited the public to submit alternative proposals, and because most business has been done in member-to-member meetings, instead of committee meetings, council members have regularly prohibited public comment.

(An exception is District 11 Councilman Danny Becton who invited public comment at his most recent member-to-member meeting with Southside council members.)

City Council members on the Southside have already informally OK’d the proposal. The remaining discussions come from council members on the Westside and Northside who have said they have some questions about how slight neighborhood shifts might impact them.

The map approved 10 years ago helped cement a City Council with a two-thirds Republican majority that persisted even when the county voted for a Democratic mayor and for Democratic candidates for governor, senate and president.

“This is a very gerrymandered map,” said Sheldon Howard Jacobson, director of the Institute for Computational Redistricting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, who examined the current City Council map for The Tributary earlier this summer. “If they want to continue to do the same thing, they’re going to continue to get the same results.”

Jacksonville’s elections are run through a partisan jungle primary. That means every candidate runs on the same ballot in a first election, and if no one earns a majority of the vote, then there is a runoff between the top two candidates.

Traditionally partisan labels have been poor indicators of a council member’s ideology, with some of the most socially and fiscally conservative local politicians being Democrats and some of the most progressive and liberal politicians being Republicans.

Even though partisanship doesn’t correlate neatly with ideology, the city’s local elections are overwhelmingly decided on partisan bases.

Today, only five out of 14 neighborhood district seats are held by Democrats. The median Democratic seat gives countywide Democrats 70 percent of the vote, while the median Republican seat gives countywide Republicans 57 percent of the vote.

That makes Republicans’ votes more efficient, ensuring more seats are likely to elect local Republican candidates.

Yet Democrats on City Council have been the loudest voices calling for as little change as possible to their districts.

“I’m very comfortable with the demographics of District 10 as I’ve been elected” there, Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson told The Tributary.

She said she feels she can adequately represent her district, and she objected to characterizations that the district, which stretches from Collins Road in southwest Jacksonville all the way to Dinsmore and Sherwood Forest in Northwest Jacksonville, is shaped like a seahorse.

Priestly Jackson has announced she will run for a countywide at-large council seat in 2023.

Rory Diamond, a Beaches Republican, had told The Tributary earlier this year he believes the county’s five at-large seats offer a backstop against any potential partisan gerrymandering since those seats are elected countywide.

Garrett Dennis, a Democrat who represents parts of the Northside and Westside, has introduced a bill to eliminate at-large seats, saying the council seats contribute to a bloated government.

Republicans on City Council actually made one of the only changes that might benefit Duval County Democrats: removing Republican-leaning census blocks in District 11 to make it slightly more Democratic.

Becton, a Baymeadows Republican, offered those changes. His district voted for Donald Trump in 2016, Ron DeSantis in 2018 and Joe Biden in 2020. Due to the peculiar ways some neighborhoods have shifted votes, his proposed changes to shrink the district would slightly shore up both DeSantis’ Republican support in 2018 and Biden’s Democratic support in 2020, potentially making this district a local Democratic target in 2023.

Becton, who has announced he is running countywide for property appraiser, could have favored his own party by prioritizing the removal of Democratic-leaning blocks, which would turn the Trump -> DeSantis -> Biden district into a Trump -> DeSantis -> Trump district.

Local Democrats ignored the district in previous elections, never having run a candidate for the district.

The elected Democrats, meanwhile, have expressed concerns about whether their districts are Democratic enough.

Councilman Reggie Gaffney, for example, has a district that gave Joe Biden 74 percent of its vote. Under the new map, his district would give Biden about 72 percent of its vote, according to an analysis in Dave’s Redistricting App. Gaffney expressed concerns last week and demanded to know how many Republicans were being added to his district in a small neighborhood of hundreds for fear the slight change might flip the solidly Democratic seat.

“You want to make sure there are just as many Democrats as Republicans” in new neighborhoods added to his district, he told the Tributary. “It could change the whole scope, Democrat to Republican.”

By shoring up votes in the few Democratic-held seats, the Democratic City Council members ensure that Duval’s Democrats will have less of a say countywide.

Gaffney said he supported the City Council in maintaining the current map as much as possible because drawing a wholly new map would be too much work. “It’s easier to take the same map and shift it,” he said.

Under this proposal, even though Republican Rick Scott lost the county by about two percentage points in his bid for the U.S. Senate, he would’ve won two-thirds (nine) of the 14 seats.

Democrat Andrew Gillum, who won the county by four-and-a-half percentage points, would have won just six districts out of 14.

Joe Biden, who won the county by about four percentage points, would have won seven districts out of 14.

Donald Trump, who won the county in 2016 by just one percentage point, would have won nine out of 14 districts that year.

With 50 percent of the vote, a Democratic countywide candidate would expect to win between five and six City Council seats, according to an analysis in Dave’s Redistricting App, a free tool for drawing and analyzing redistricting plans. Meanwhile, a Republican candidate who got 50 percent of the vote could expect to win between eight and nine seats.

Even though the map would appear gerrymandered based on the last decade’s worth of elections, it’s possible that future party swings could change that.

Part of the key to Joe Biden winning Duval County last fall was that while he did worse in Black-majority neighborhoods, he outperformed past Democratic candidates in whiter neighborhoods.

If those trends continue and Democrats win more white voters, then Districts 5, 11 and 14, which represent white-majority neighborhoods like Riverside, San Marco and southeast Jacksonville, could still swing to Democrats.

But if future elections reflect the last decade, where both Republicans and Democrats win the county by slight margins, then Republicans will continue to benefit from the map’s district shapes.

Before the plan is approved, the redistricting committee will need to send it to the council’s rules committee, and then the City Council must host meetings across the city to explain the plan to the public.

On The Calendar

The Jacksonville City Council Special Committee on Redistricting met Tuesday. Last week, Northside and Southside council members held separate meetings. No more meetings are currently scheduled, but Planning Director Bill Killingsworth said he will schedule a meeting with council members, and then the committee will hold another meeting near the end of October.

The Florida Senate and House redistricting committees met last week. Videos of those meetings are available online at The Florida Channel.

The Florida Senate redistricting committee will next meet Monday, Oct. 11, from 3 to 6 p.m. The Florida House redistricting committee will meet Tuesday, Oct. 12, from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

Submit your maps

We want to see what you think Jacksonville’s 14 City Council districts should look like.

Here’s how you can get started drawing your own maps.

  • Go to DavesRedistricting.org.
  • Create an account.
  • Go to DavesRedistricting.org/maps.
  • Select New Map.
  • Choose Florida as your state.
  • Select “Other” as your plan type.
  • Restrict to Duval.
  • Select 14 districts.
  • Click apply and it will take you to a new screen where you can begin drawing districts.

When you’re done, send a link to your map to info@jaxtrib.org, so we can feature your map in a future newsletter.

Today’s map comes from Nick Seabrook, UNF’s interim chair of its political science department.

My goals for the map were:

Partisan balance/competitiveness – I wanted a map where both Democrats and Republicans would have a decent shot at winning a majority, depending on how the people voted in the competitive districts, and the at-large results, rather than the majority being pre-ordained as it is under the present map. I drew 7 Democratic districts and 7 Republican districts, with 9 of those being somewhat competitive (PVI of +/- 10), and 3 highly competitive (PVI of +/- 3).

Minority representation – I drew the map with the goal of maximizing the number of majority-minority districts, to ensure representation of Jacksonville’s minority communities. I drew 3 majority-Black districts, and 5 minority coalition districts, along with 6 majority-white districts.

Equal population – I tried to minimize the population deviations between districts. The largest district has 71,118 people, and the smallest has 71,107 people, representing an 11-person min-max population deviation.

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Andrew Pantazi edits and reports for The Tributary. He previously worked as a reporter at The Florida Times-Union where he helped organize the newsroom's union with the NewsGuild-CWA. He is a Jacksonville...