By Andrew Pantazi
The Tributary


The Jacksonville City Council redistricting plans faced their most serious threat of a lawsuit yet: Four local activist organizations have called on the Rules Committee to redraw the plans to avoid the “legal problems that would follow.”

The Thursday letter from the ACLU Northeast Florida Chapter, the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, the Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters and the Jacksonville NAACP decried what the organizations called an “intentional and unnecessary packing of Black voters.” The letter attached a detailed analysis that found Jacksonville’s Black residents deserve federal protections under the Voting Rights Act.

Such an analysis is often the first step in preparing to file a lawsuit. Some experts have said the city’s redistricting plan might violate the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by packing Black voters.

City attorney Paige Johnston speaks to City Councilman Aaron Bowman at a redistricting public hearing. [Andrew Pantazi | The Tributary]

City Planning Director Bill Killingsworth and city attorney Paige Johnston had the report in front of them Thursday when they addressed those who came to a public hearing at First Coast High to comment about the maps. Neither addressed the letter’s contents.

Isaiah Rumlin, president of the local NAACP branch, said while he hopes the City Council has the sense to redo the map, “if history has anything to say about it, they will not. Then we end up in court.”

Every speaker has criticized the redistricting plans at each public hearing held so far. Most noted the seeming packing of Black voters into four specific districts. The fourth and final hearing will take place Thursday at 6 p.m. at Raines High School.

“In the last two public hearings, many residents expressed concern about what appears to be the intentional and unnecessary packing of Black voters,” the organizations’ letter to City Council said. “… We hope the Committee answers the call of the people of Jacksonville and draws a district plan that will improve elections for all.”

Although Rules Committee Chairwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson had promised answers to questions voiced at the hearings, neither she nor city staff has explained why the council never conducted analyses to ensure it wasn’t packing Black voters.

The proposal the redistricting committee chose would see Black residents range from 61 percent to 70 percent of the total population in four districts. That means more than half, or about 55 percent, of Duval County’s Black residents live in four out of 14 districts.

Because of that, Black residents would make up much smaller portions of the population in the remaining City Council districts, strengthening the power of white voters in the majority of districts. White residents make up 49 percent of the county population, yet they will make up a majority of voters in nine of the 14 districts.

“All of my questions were asked, not answered, but asked” at the prior hearing, said Joy Burgess, who attended earlier redistricting meetings and helped put together a citizen’s guide for the hearings. “Many of the citizens of this community were left out of the process. … [Democracy] doesn’t work if we’re not part of the conversation.”

At the first hearing, Priestly Jackson expressed surprise at people’s concerns, “For myself, maybe it was a lack of knowledge and understanding of what matters to some, seriously.” At this upcoming Thursday’s hearing at Raines High School, she said she will address the “significant gap in knowledge” about how the districts were drawn.

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City Council Rules Committee Chairwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson speaking at the first public hearing. [Andrew Pantazi | The Tributary]

The letter’s accompanying analysis, conducted by University of Texas professor Hannah Walker, found that Black and white voting was racially polarized. Without protected districts, Black voters would likely not be able to elect the candidates of their choice.

These are some of the first steps to proving Black voters deserve special protections under the Voting Rights Act.

Yet even with those protections, the City Council cannot arbitrarily decide to pack Black voters in certain districts without knowing what is appropriate. Walker’s analysis found that Black voters could regularly elect candidates of their choice when the citizen Black voting-age population was between 41 percent and 44 percent. Four of the 14 districts far exceed that amount.

Walker also said the city should analyze individual districts to determine if they were likely to ensure the usual success of Black-preferred candidates.

“We engaged Dr. Walker because of concerns for our members and other Jacksonville residents about proposed City Council and School Board district maps,” said Rosemary McCoy of the Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters.

City Council President Sam Newby and Priestly Jackson both said Thursday they had not yet reviewed the letter. Priestly Jackson said she would not comment until after the last public hearing at Raines next Thursday at 6 p.m.

The soonest City Council could vote on the maps is at its March 8 meeting. The council must approve the maps by April 12, or a circuit judge is supposed to take over.

So far, one councilman, Rory Diamond, has said he won’t support the maps, which he called “incredibly gerrymandered.”

Newby pointed to his and Terrance Freeman’s electoral success as Black politicians and positions as the council president and vice president. Yet Walker’s analysis found that Newby and Freeman, both of whom are Republicans, were not the choice of Black voters.

Her analysis estimated only 1 percent of Black voters voted for Newby in 2015 when he was first elected, and only 13 percent voted for Freeman in 2019.

City attorney Johnston told the audience at one hearing that as long as the City Council didn’t intentionally discriminate, the plan would be acceptable.

Yet in many cases, including a prominent Florida case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, courts have said that regardless of motivations, a district’s bizarre shape that cannot be explained “on grounds other than race” deserves close scrutiny.

Jacksonville’s own charter requires districts drawn “in as logical and compact a geographical pattern as it is possible to achieve … so the people of the City, and their varied economic, social and ethnic interests and objectives, are adequately represented.”

The map’s districts split 47 of Jacksonville’s recognized 206 neighborhoods.

During redistricting meetings, council members didn’t discuss whether their districts were compact or represented the people’s various interests and objectives. They never assessed or judged the compactness of the districts. They did, however, discuss race extensively, reading off the demographics of individual neighborhoods, with two council members explicitly saying they were worried whether their districts had enough Black people.

Members of the public gather at Edward White High School to speak out against the Jacksonville City Council redistricting plan. [Andrew Pantazi | The Tributary]

This process varied greatly from the Florida Legislature and other governments, which frequently discussed compactness and conducted analyses about whether given districts would allow Black or Hispanic voters to elect their preferred candidates.

“The gerrymandered redistricting plan for City Council districts should be scrapped because it is unfair to Black residents,” said Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition. “An independent consultant should be hired to create an impartial plan that meets constitutional guidelines. Council members should look beyond creating a plan that protects their own seats. They should instead create a plan that adequately represents the power of the people. The plan should allow the people to pick the politicians, not the other way around.”

At the first public hearing, Michelle Charron Hollie, the ACLU Northeast Florida chapter president, said that she was “concerned the voices of residents are not only not being heard. They’re being stifled.”

Repeatedly, people brought up the bizarre shapes of the districts. “If I were to guess why are the shapes shaped like this, I would guess it’s based on race,” one woman said at Ed White High School.

Lanelle Phillmon of the League of Women Voters Jacksonville First Coast chapter said that drawing gerrymandered maps disenfranchised voters, saying vote dilution and packing can limit the public’s right to vote.

“If I stand in front of a ballot box and block your ability to drop off your vote by mail ballot or I tear your ballot into pieces before you get that inserted into the DS200 machine, most folks will realize this is wrong,” she told the committee. “What most folks are not easily able to distinguish is when a resident’s vote is invalidated by manipulating their neighborhood, their voting precinct or their district by creating a situation where the person’s vote is now diluted or is overpowered.”

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Lanelle Phillmon of the League of Women Voters speaking at the First Coast High School public hearing. [Andrew Pantazi | The Tributary]

This is Changing Florida, a Tributary newsletter keeping you up to date on redistricting, demographics and the fight for political power in the Sunshine State.

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ICYMI

THE FLORIDA SUPREME COURT DECLINED DESANTIS’ REDISTRICTING OPINION REQUEST
The Florida Supreme Court unanimously rejected Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request for an advisory opinion on whether Jacksonville’s Congressional District 5 is constitutional, saying the question was too broad and fact-intensive.

The five justices who signed the opinion included three appointed by DeSantis. Two other justices had earlier recused themselves from the request.

Before bringing the court in, the Florida Senate had already approved a congressional proposal that largely maintains District 5, which is currently represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, in a Jacksonville to Tallahassee shape.

Read More.


On The Calendar

The Jacksonville City Council Rules Committee will host its final public hearings Thursday to gather community input about its local redistricting plan at 6 p.m. at Raines High School.

The Florida House Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee is scheduled to meet Friday.

You can stream that or find past meetings on The Florida Channel.


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.

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 and his wife,...