There is a widespread belief that Duval County district lines have historically been drawn based on racial demographics prevalent within the city’s neighborhoods. Many people argue that the current boundaries were influenced by local politicians attempting to secure and retain their positions of authority as elected officials.
In late March, the Jacksonville City Council voted 17–1 in favor of the redistricting plans. Six weeks later, the Jacksonville branch of the NAACP, Northside Coalition, ACLU of Florida Northeast Chapter, and Florida Rising together filed a lawsuit, accusing the council of racial gerrymandering.
On October 8, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard ruled that the City Council likely focused on race as a predominant factor in drawing the district lines – a violation of the 14th Amendment – and ordered that they be redrawn. Howard wrote that “Because the Black voters are pulled out of Districts 2, 12 and 14, the Enacted Plan assures that in those Districts there will not be a sufficient number of Black voters for them to have a meaningful impact on any election or a meaningful voice on any issue of concern.”
I questioned the timing of the gerrymandering complaint. According to the 2020 Census, black residents make up about 32 percent of the total population in Jacksonville. Roughly 70 percent are concentrated in the areas of Districts 7, 8, 9, and 10, and they predominantly vote Democrat. Current Democrat council members Ju’Coby Pittman and Reggie Gaffney, both of whom are black, have expressed concern that aggressively redrawing lines in historically black districts could dilute black voting power. Pushing the district lines further northwest might absorb some border residents who live close to the neighboring city of Baldwin, a majority-white town that tends to vote Republican.
It is a fair question to ask why the four predominately black districts were drawn in such a confusing way, unlike other districts. District 10 stretches from Sherwood Forest all the way down to Collins Road near the county line. Meanwhile, District 9 dips south dodging in and out of neighborhoods, as if to avoid prominent areas. This has all the makings of classic gerrymandering. But is it racially, economically, or politically motivated? Some political analysts say it’s a little bit of all three.
Members of Jacksonville’s powerful political establishment naturally have a stake in the redistricting fight because it impacts election results. They may want lines redrawn so as to weaken a non-establishment candidate’s chance of winning. It is no secret that the Republican candidates are hand-picked and influenced by members of the Executive Committee of the Duval County GOP, possibly in cooperation with consultants who have ties to the mayor’s office. They have a vested interest in shaping Jacksonville politics with robot candidates that will do their bidding without question. With that said, redrawing district lines due to population growth is common practice in large metropolitan areas. Intent, after all, is hard to prove.
This redistricting move right in the middle of a campaign season seems more political than racial. On October 20, 2022, there were 262,169 Democrats and 230,845 Republicans in Duval County. But the Republicans have the majority of power in the entire city. The Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment were passed to protect minority voters. However, if black residents are concentrated in one area of the city, then it would be very difficult to establish a more diverse population based on ethnic makeup. Re-drawing lines in an aggressive pattern could give more leverage to Democratic voters, but it also could come at a cost to those with political aspirations to shape the voting bloc.
One thing is clear, If the federal judge decides to draw and approve their version, both political and ethnic supporters might have something neither agrees with.
Reginald K. Blount is a native of Jacksonville. He is a former City Council candidate, a 30-year retired U.S. Army veteran, an adjunct instructor at FSCJ, a public policy analyst, and a youth mentor curriculum writer. He can be contacted at [email protected]