Jacksonville City Hall.
Jacksonville City Hall. [The Tributary]

The Jacksonville City Council will not attempt to comply with the Voting Rights Act in its proposed district maps, a city lawyer and council members announced at a Tuesday committee meeting.

For nearly a year, citizens, plaintiffs and experts have urged the council to conduct voting-rights analyses to determine if the city needed to take race into account to comply with federal law. On Tuesday, General Counsel Jason Teal told the council’s redistricting committee there was not enough time to do so.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard struck down the city’s earlier map as a racial gerrymander, saying the council districts and the county’s School Board districts had segregated voters by race.

At Tuesday’s redistricting committee meeting, the first where the committee considered proposals since Howard’s order a month ago, council members advanced two maps that will likely further Republican gains on the council, even as council members said they wanted to avoid partisan or racial gerrymandering.

Lawmakers can’t use race as a predominant factor unless there’s a compelling reason — like complying with the Voting Rights Act’s Section 2. But even then, lawmakers must narrowly tailor any use of race.

While plaintiffs, including the Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP and the ACLU of Florida, said the Voting Rights Act does apply, the city’s lawyers said they don’t know if it does.

In February of 2021, the city’s lawyers wrote a memo detailing the type of analysis the council must undertake to ensure districts comply with the Voting Rights Act. The council never undertook that analysis.

A year later, in February 2022, activists submitted a racial-voting analysis to the city, a key element proving Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act may apply. Since then, the plaintiffs have filed two more expert reports. At one hearing, the plaintiffs even offered to share their experts’ data and code with the city, something the city declined to accept.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is separate from the local branch of the NAACP, also sent the city a notice last February, saying Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act applies to Jacksonville’s redistricting. The city’s lawyers responded to that letter by forming a litigation team to prepare for incoming lawsuits, but again, the city never conducted its own analysis.

The city’s general counsel couldn’t even tell City Council members if four proposed maps the redistricting committee considered Tuesday were legal since he didn’t know if they would comply with the Voting Rights Act.

EXPLORE THE CITY COUNCIL DISTRICTS’ STATISTICS

Judge Howard, in a Tuesday order striking down the city’s motion to stay her earlier ruling, told the city that even if it can’t do its own analysis, “the Committee also has the benefit of Plaintiffs’ racially polarized voting analyses and the simulated plans of Plaintiffs’ expert.” The city’s lawyers, however, never presented those analyses or simulated plans to the council.

Howard indicated a Voting Rights Act analysis would be part of evaluating remedial maps submitted to her, despite Teal saying the city would be unprepared for such an analysis. A pending U.S. Supreme Court case dealing with the Voting Rights Act, the judge wrote, “will likely provide guidance relevant to the process of drawing a remedial map that complies with §2 of the VRA.”

Jacksonville General Counsel Jason Teal. [The Tributary]

Without knowing whether the new maps comply with the Voting Rights Act, the committee advanced two maps: the so-called “Maroon” and “Lime” proposals from the city’s expert. Those maps will be refined at meetings on Wednesday and Thursday, and the council will vote on a final map on Friday.

The council selected the two maps even before it heard from public commenters. Because the meeting was only an hour and a half, the committee limited public commenters to speak for one minute each.

Ayesha Franklin Covington, one of the plaintiffs who spoke at the meeting, said the process was disingenuous, especially since the committee didn’t do any analysis.

Afterward, she told the Tributary she worried the committee would continue to pack Black voters into just a few districts, but that the committee would try to act like it was using partisanship instead of race to do it.

“The city has a much larger budget than these pro bono lawyers that signed up to represent us,” she said, noting the plaintiffs were able to produce three expert reports. “These City Council members have no intent of following the law.”

If the Voting Rights Act’s protections against vote dilution apply, then the city must draw a certain number of districts that allow Black voters to have the ability to elect candidates of their choice. The map that Howard struck down had four districts that ranged from 61% Black to 70% Black, which was far beyond what the Voting Rights Act would require, experts said.

As a result of Black voters getting packed into just four out of 14 districts, Howard said Black voters’ overall influence in Jacksonville had been diminished.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the redistricting committee reviewed three new map proposals, in addition to one proposed by the plaintiffs last week. Each of the three city-drawn proposals would continue Republicans’ advantages on the City Council and likely continue to keep Black voters from having much influence in most council districts. The plaintiffs’ map would’ve resulted in two of the council’s Republican districts becoming more competitive while increasing the Black population in those districts.

Many of the council members said they wished they had more data about the proposed maps and would’ve had time to review the maps, yet even without that data, they voted to select two to refine.

When asked for a copy of the new maps — which were in front of him before the meeting started — Teal refused to share it with reporters, saying he could wait a “reasonable” amount of time before sharing public records, and he wanted to wait until after the council committee got the maps. One of the maps’ filenames was “NDC Maroon 2022-10-26” and appeared to be created last week.

Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman said she struggled to distinguish which district was which on the small printed maps handed out at the meeting. She said she had a hard time seeing whether incumbents were kept in their districts or what streets were in the given districts because of the difficult colors used in the paper handouts.

Councilman Rory Diamond was the first to say he supported the Maroon map, which was then supported by most council members. Most council members also selected the Lime map as a preferred alternative.

According to the city’s shapefile, the new Maroon map would have four districts that range from 49% Black to 77% Black. The previous map struck down for racial gerrymandering had four districts that ranged from 61% Black to 70% Black.

The city expert’s three maps each scored worse on common compactness metrics than the plaintiff’s proposed map. The city’s charter requires districts that are “logical and compact”, and Howard blasted the council’s previous attempt at redistricting for its “sprawling and illogical” districts.

City Council President Terrance Freeman. [The Tributary]

Council President Terrance Freeman said the new committee’s process was transparent and welcomed public input. But even though the committee received 12 emails before its meeting, he didn’t mention those comments during the meeting or the proposed maps that citizens submitted.

Even though he said he had read the emails before the meeting, he said he didn’t know of any maps that were submitted ahead of time. Two of the emails included district proposals, and a third included the plaintiffs’ map.

Freeman said he couldn’t review the maps without the necessary “data” he claimed was necessary. In public, the lawyers only said the districts needed to be roughly equal in population, and each of the citizen proposals included population numbers. Freeman wouldn’t clarify what data he needed to see, saying he would need to defer that question to the city’s lawyers.

Under the Maroon map, Gov. Ron DeSantis — who lost Jacksonville’s county-wide vote — would’ve won nine of the 14 districts, compared to eight under the plan the court struck down and seven under the plaintiff’s proposal. President Joe Biden — who won the county-wide vote — would’ve won six districts, compared to the seven he won under the struck-down map and eight under the plaintiffs’ map.

Freeman also wouldn’t answer questions about whether he now intended to draw partisan gerrymanders, saying questions about partisanship were also for the city’s lawyers, not the council members.

He had earlier interrupted another council member who asked about racial demographics. “This is a pending legal matter,” Freeman told Councilman Reggie Gaffney. “We need to be cautious when we’re in this process of trying to read the maps. Race can’t be used. Be careful with the wording.”

“Let me rephrase,” Gaffney then said.

Teal told Gaffney that “party affiliation is still appropriate. You can maintain a certain number of districts based on Democrat or Republican, but what you can’t do is establish a district based on African-American or any other demographic group or ethnic group.”

Gaffney responded, “OK, then, which of these four [districts] can Democrats maintain?”

Councilman Rory Diamond had said he rejected the plaintiffs’ map because it looked like a “partisan gerrymander” that made District 12 more Democratic.

At one point, Randy DeFoor questioned why the Maroon map that most council members preferred split Riverside and Avondale into three districts, and she asked if the experts used the city’s neighborhoods map.

The city’s expert, Douglas Johnson, claimed no neighborhoods map existed. That’s not true. The Tributary previously used the city’s neighborhoods map to show how previous districts divided neighborhoods. Plaintiffs also cited that map.

But Jacksonville’s planning director, Bill Killingsworth, told DeFoor it would be “tedious” to try to build a neighborhoods map. In an interview, Property Appraiser Jerry Holland said he could have produced a neighborhoods map for the committee.

“They knew it was important for me to have the historic districts stay together,” DeFoor told the Tributary later. She said she didn’t buy the fact that Killingsworth couldn’t check if the districts split neighborhoods. As a real-estate attorney, she said she knew the city officially recognizes neighborhoods. “That should be easily accessible.”

After Councilwoman Randy DeFoor said publicly she wanted a map that would keep Riverside, Avondale and Murray Hill together, the council narrowed in on a map that splits those neighborhoods into three districts.

Killingsworth also said he had met with all of the council members who wanted to meet with him before the committee meeting. But DeFoor said he hadn’t reached out to her.

Instead of using the city’s neighborhoods map, the city’s expert claimed he followed the city’s planning districts, also known as CPACs, but in fact, the proposed districts in the Maroon map unnecessarily split CPACs.

Districts 9, 10 and 12 each span two CPACs when they don’t need to. District 7 also spans two CPACs, but that appears to be because there wasn’t enough population for it in one of the CPACs.

The proposed Maroon map was the least compact of the four proposed maps, and it had the most pro-Republican bias using common partisan metrics. It also split the second-most neighborhoods. It was the only map where District 14 would have never seen a Democrat win across 16 elections that the Tributary analyzed.

The plaintiffs’ map was the most compact, had the most neutral partisan bias and split the least number of neighborhoods.

The city had argued it would hurt candidates to have to run in new maps in the coming March and May 2023 elections, but Judge Howard noted that as long as the city passes more compact districts, those districts should be easier for candidates to get to know.

Howard, who was initially appointed by George W. Bush, used remarkably blunt language in her order denying the city’s attempt to stop her injunction.

She took a sledgehammer to the city’s argument that she must halt her prior order. She said it was “significant” that the city didn’t argue it was likely to win on the merits of its appeal, that the city didn’t argue the court got the facts or the law wrong and the city did not pose any substantial questions for appeal.

The city argued in court that it was nearly impossible to pass new maps by Nov. 8, the deadline Howard set. But that argument was undercut by the fact that City Council President Terrance Freeman said new maps would be passed by Friday, four days ahead of schedule.

Howard also seemed unimpressed by the fact the redistricting committee scheduled just four meetings, spanning five and a half hours, over the course of a month.

After the city enacts its new maps, the plaintiffs will have a chance to challenge the maps and propose their own.

The City Council redistricting committee will meet again Wednesday and Thursday at 12 p.m., and then the committee will host a “map chat” at 5 p.m. on Thursday. The council will vote on a new map on Friday.

The committee is also accepting public comments at 2022redistricting@coj.net.

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,...