Bryan Simpson U.S. Courthouse in Jacksonville
The Jacksonville redistricting lawsuit is being heard at the Bryan Simpson U.S. Courthouse in Jacksonville [Michael Rivera] Credit: Michael Rivera

Voting-rights groups told a federal judge they will ask the court to overturn the Jacksonville City Council redistricting plans before the 2023 elections because the council’s new maps disenfranchise Black voters by packing most Black residents into four out of 14 districts.

The Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP, the Northside Coalition, the ACLU of Florida Northeast Chapter and Florida Rising, along with 10 Jacksonville voters, first filed suit in early May, asking the court to strike down seven of the city’s 14 council districts and three of Duval County’s seven School Board seats.

The groups argued the city’s council and School Board maps violated the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. The city has defended its plan, saying that the City Council did not prioritize racial considerations over other “legitimate and recognized redistricting principles”.

Lawyers for the city and the voting-rights groups said that lawsuit could go to trial in December 2023.

In the meantime, the plaintiffs said Friday that they will file a motion for a preliminary injunction by July 22, asking the federal court to intervene before the city’s 2023 elections. U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard said she will hold a hearing in September to decide whether to stop the city from using its new maps.

Judge Howard said she was surprised the plaintiffs’ lawyers hadn’t yet filed the motion. “I guess I’m a little curious why we’ve lost two months, given the fact that we need a resolution by mid-December,” Howard said.

A Duval County elections official said in a court filing the office needed to know the new district lines by Dec. 16 in order to prepare for the city elections on March 21, 2023. That election, and a runoff on May 16, will include the City Council, the mayor, the sheriff, the tax collector, the property appraiser and the elections supervisor.

(Clockwise from top-left) Jacksonville City Council districts 10, 14, 9, 7, 2 and 8 challenged in redistricting lawsuit. [Jacksonville NAACP lawsuit]

Both the plaintiffs and the city said that courts would usually allow the City Council a second chance at redrawing the lines. The court could accept those maps, or it could reject them and impose maps proposed by the plaintiffs or by a court-appointed expert.

Daniel Hessel, a lawyer with Harvard Law School’s Election Law Clinic representing the plaintiffs, said that “courts in similar cases have been able to issue remedies relatively quickly. I think what we typically see is there’s a deadline given to the legislature, which gets a second bite at the apple usually. I’ve seen it, you know, as short as a couple of weeks.”

Mary Margaret Giannini, a city lawyer, said that there are no rules dictating how long such a process should last, but the city believes the process could take as long as it would during a normal redistricting, which she said was about three months.

A February poll found that 89% of Jacksonville residents had said they didn’t trust the City Council to draw fair districts. Residents also spoke out against the maps at each of the City Council public hearings, calling the maps a racial gerrymander at every meeting.

It’s not always unconstitutional to take race into consideration in redistricting, courts have ruled. But courts have struck down districts as discriminatory when they intentionally pack more Black voters than necessary. The Jacksonville redistricting lawsuit alleges that’s what happened here, when the City Council drew four districts with Black populations that ranged from 61% to 70% Black after council members complained about alternative versions that would slightly reduce the share of Black voters.

The lawsuit included this dot map showing residents’ race based on voting precincts. Each purple dot represents 25 Black residents; each brown dot represents 25 white residents. [Jacksonville NAACP redistricting lawsuit]

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

An academic with the University of Texas at Austin wrote a report that showed Black voters could elect their preferred candidates in a district that was about 41% Black.

The Tributary surveyed City Council members. Eight of the 19 responded so far. Two said the court should take over if the initial plan is struck down. Three said that the City Council should be given a second chance; a fourth, Aaron Bowman, said he couldn’t see a scenario where the maps get overridden so he was going to “stay away from hypotheticals.”

Council President Terrance Freeman said he had “the utmost confidence in the work my colleagues did during the redistricting process, a final product that passed on a nearly unanimous 17-1 vote.” He declined to say if the City Council should get a second chance if the court strikes down the map, saying he’d refer further comment to the city’s lawyers.

Westside Councilman Randy White said he would trust “the path that Council President Freeman would want to take” when it comes to how long the City Council would take to redraw the lines.

Michael Boylan, who represents Mandarin, said that he was “satisfied with the diligent process by which the districts were redrawn”, but if they are struck down, then he would be OK with deferring to the court since “if the Council did it, it would be open to being contested again.”

Matt Carlucci, an at-large councilman and veteran of past redistricting cycles, said in a text, “It would be interesting to see [the] judicial system redraw the lines!”

Sam Newby, who served as City Council president during the redistricting, said “the courts are going to find in our favor. I’m 100 percent confident because we didn’t racially gerrymander anything.” Still, he said if the court did rule against the city, the council should get a second chance, though he wasn’t sure how much time the council should get.

Danny Becton, a Southside councilman now running for property appraiser, said that it would likely take 60 to 90 days to redraw the lines, “depending on the complexity of deficiencies” the court found.

And Councilwoman Randy DeFoor, who is not running for re-election, said the main issue is “how much time would exist for public involvement.”

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,...