JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Not far from the postcard images of Jacksonville — the white-sand beaches, riverside fountain, upscale shopping district — is another side to the city.
Here the streets of the neighborhood are full of potholes and sometimes unpaved. Weeds gobble up abandoned cars in vacant lots. Grocery stores are scarce.
The people who live in this other Jacksonville are mostly black, and many of them blame their neighborhoods’ lack of amenities on city politics. They point to a lack of representation stemming in part from the way districts have been drawn for the city council, the decision-making body for Jacksonville’s 950,000 residents.
“It’s about diluting black representation, black power, and the change that needs to happen in the black community,” said Moné Holder, a city resident who holds a leadership role at Florida Rising, a local voting rights group that focuses on communities of color. “Others might tell a different story as to why it is, but we see it in the lack of resources going into those communities.”
A group of Jacksonville residents and local civil rights organizations sued the city last year, alleging that council redistricting maps grouped black communities into four of the council’s 19 districts, five of which are in freedom.
Last fall a US District Court judge ruled in their favor and ordered the maps to be redrawn. Lawyers said the city came back with more of the same, and in December the same court ordered a map proposed by the lawyers to be used for this spring’s Jacksonville election.
“There is of course an incentive to keep things the same, and that’s what you saw in the Jacksonville trial,” said Nick Warren, Florida’s ACLU personnel attorney.
The council argued in its court filings that the lawyers’ latest plan would be the council’s third map in less than a year and would “cause voter confusion and undermine voter confidence.” The court rejected the appeal in early January, so voters will cast their ballots in new council districts for city elections in March.
The dispute over how Jacksonville’s districts are drawn reflects an aspect of redistricting that often remains in the shadows. Redistricting for congressional and state legislative boundaries draws wide attention after new census numbers are released every 10 years as the two major political parties seek advantages in creating maps that will help them maintain or regain power a federal or state level, a process known as gerrymandering.
No less fierce are the battles over how voting lines are drawn in local governments, city councils, county commissions, and even school boards.
Conflicts over local redistricting exploded into public view late last year when a leaked audiotape revealed how Latino members of the Los Angeles city council were plotting to gerrymander council districts in a way that would increase the political power for their community at the expense of those traditionally black.
The exchange was punctuated with racist and graphic language and widened racial fissures within the city, led the state Justice Department to announce an investigation, and prompted a legislative effort to remove the council’s redistricting power .
“Self-interest should not be the deciding factor,” said the initiator of the bill, Democratic Senator María Elena Durazo. “It should be the Voting Rights Act, the California Constitution and the United States Constitution.”
When the city was going through the redistricting process, Los Angeles City Council member Marqueece Harris-Dawson recalled raising important issues for his constituents related to what he called the “One Black district,” but said to have been ignored.
“Now I understand it was on purpose,” she said.
A US Supreme Court ruling a decade ago gutting a section of the federal Voting Rights Act gave state and local governments tremendous latitude to change voting procedures and redraw political boundaries, even as redistricting it was carried out in a way that diluted the voting power of minority communities. Previously, some state and local governments had to get approval from the Justice Department before making significant voting changes.
Gerrymandering for local government entities receives far less attention than rigging congressional or state legislation, in part because few local groups have the money and expertise to sue what they perceive as unfair maps.
Jacksonville is an exception. Local branches of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union worked with community civil rights groups to challenge the city council-approved maps in March 2022.
Some community activists trace the city’s redistricting problems to a 1968 consolidation with Duval County, which allowed the city to grow but also changed its racial dynamics. At the time, it was hoped that a mix of predominantly black council districts and general council positions would help strengthen black representation.
Yet in the more than half-century since the merger, only six black residents have held general, elected citywide positions, and only two of those were Democrats, according to research by Marcella Washington, a retired political science professor at Florida State College in Florida. Jacksonville, plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Black residents made up at least 40% of Jacksonville’s total population at the time of the consolidation and make up just over 30% today.
While seven of today’s Jacksonville council members are black, Washington said they don’t always vote in the interest of the black community. For example, he cited controversial votes on whether to remove Confederate monuments across the city. Other residents have noted additional concerns in predominantly black areas of Jacksonville that they believe the council does not prioritize: overgrown city properties, problems with water and sewer service, inadequate services for the homeless.
Councilor Rory Diamond was the only one to vote against the council’s original map, saying it was designed to protect incumbents. But he is also critical of the redrawn map to be used in the upcoming election because he believes it could have the unintended consequence of “destroying African-American representation on the city council.” Other board members declined to comment, citing litigation.
Local activists say forcing black residents into a handful of municipal districts has led to a sense in those communities that their voice doesn’t matter. That made it difficult to engage them politically, said Rosemary McCoy, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and CEO of the Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters, a nonprofit that registers new voters.
“We know that when you bring a group of people together, then these people have no say. Their vote appears to be wasted,” McCoy said. “I ask people to sign petitions to put things on the ballot…and many times they tell us, ‘My vote doesn’t matter. My vote doesn’t matter. vote? Nothing will change’”
Ben Frazier, another plaintiff in the case and CEO of Jacksonville’s Northside Coalition, which focuses on injustice, said he wishes the legal battle in Jacksonville would inspire other groups across the country to challenge local redistricting maps when they appear to be wrongly drawn.
“I hope there will be other cities and other states that will look at Jacksonville and say that Jacksonville has moved against them, and maybe we should too,” he said.
The Associated Press’s coverage of race and voting receives support from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.