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City of Miami sued for 'racial gerrymandering' in redistricting map

 A mural in the historically-Black western portion of Coconut Grove with the unifying catchphrase "One Grove."
Photo by Joshua Ceballos
/
A mural in the historically-Black western portion of Coconut Grove with the unifying catchphrase "One Grove."

Updated at 4:55 p.m.

When Miami redrew its district maps early this year, many residents criticized the city for carving up neighborhoods, including ones populated by minorities.

Now the city is facing a legal challenge to its redistricting process, and an allegation of furthering racial segregation through its mapmaking, WLRN can reveal.

On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida sued the City of Miami in federal court claiming the city violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship, just treatment and voting protection for Black people and minorities.

The ACLU of Florida and their plaintiffs – four residents and several voting rights organizations including the South Dade and Miami-Dade branches of the NAACP – contend that the city's redistricting map is an unconstitutional product of “racial gerrymandering” for packing racial and ethnic groups into specific districts, thus diluting those groups’ voting power in other parts of Miami.

"When governments use race to pack as many individuals of a certain racial group into certain districts or to split up communities along racial lines, and that's not justified by advancing fair representation – that is racial gerrymandering. That's what we've seen in Miami," said Nicholas Warren, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida.

"We look forward to addressing the allegations in court," City Attorney Victoria Méndez told WLRN through a spokesperson.

The city re-charted the map of its five commission districts this spring after the 2020 U.S. Census revealed Miami jumped in population, with much of that growth centered in District 2, which includes downtown, Brickell, and much of the city’s coastline. Because of that uneven growth, Miami had to redraw its commission borders to balance out the district populations.

City leaders hired attorney and lobbyist Miguel De Grandy as a consultant on the map-making process, and sought to distribute about 28,000 voters into other districts in part by carving pieces of District 2 – including two sections of Coconut Grove - and giving them to other commissioners.

According to Census demographic data the city used during redistricting, District 5, which includes Little Haiti and Overtown, has the majority proportion of Black voters in Miami. Districts 1, 3, and 4 are all majority Hispanic districts, while District 2 has the highest percentage of white non-Hispanic voters.

During the redistricting process, the commission’s purported goal was to maintain the existing racial balance of the districts. But the ACLU argues that, in effect, the commission actually packed districts with specific racial groups in an act akin to segregation.

"[Miami's racial gerrymander] is the product of a calculated scheme in which communities and neighborhoods were split along racial lines for the predominant purpose of maintaining racially segregated districts," reads the court complaint, provided to WLRN.

De Grandy defended the redistricting, telling WLRN that the "main driver" for the new maps was a "directive to maintain the core of existing districts."

"The districts in the adopted plan are relatively compact and join politically cohesive communities in a city where significant voting polarization exists between the different protected classes under the Voting Rights Act," he added. "Race and ethnicity were only considered to the extent necessary to comply with the Voting Rights act."

The complaint alleges that the city's Cuban-American commissioners — Alex Diaz de la Portilla of District 1, Joe Carollo of District 3 and Manolo Reyes of District 4 — jockeyed for swaths of land from across the city of Miami that had greater percentages of Hispanic voters to place in their majority-Hispanic districts.

Meanwhile, the suit alleges, they also corralled Black Miami voters into District 5.

By doing so, the plaintiffs allege the commission essentially picked its voters for the next election and curtailed the influence of minority voters in certain districts.

"The packing of Black voters into one district, District 5, was done with the result of minimizing Black voters' influence in surrounding districts," Warren told WLRN.

"A similar dynamic happened with the three supermajority Hispanic districts, where again the commission tried to pack as many Hispanics residents into those districts as they possibly could, which diminishes Hispanic influence [in District 2 and District 5] as well."

Residents criticized the redistricting

Many residents of Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood — which went from being solely in District 2 to now being split between three commissioners — criticized the redistricting from the get-go.

Jihad S. Rashid, a Black longtime-resident of Coconut Grove, told commissioners at a Feb. 25 commission meeting not to “mess with” the neighborhood and diminish the Black vote in the neighborhood’s historically-Bahamian Village West.

"This is no different than if it was gerrymandering based on race, because culturally, Coconut Grove is one," Rashid said during the public comment period at the commission meeting.

Outgoing Commissioner Ken Russell, who represents District 2, told Miami New Times in February that he was against splitting Coconut Grove because the neighborhood did not have the population growth to justify any cuts.

"If it can be accomplished in other ways, it should. Once you break up this community into three different districts, you've now fractured their ability to go to a common champion," Russell said at the time.

Now that the districts map has landed in federal court, if a judge agrees with the plaintiffs that Miami is guilty of racial gerrymandering and the current map is unconstitutional, the city will have to go back to the drawing board and draft a legally-compliant map before next year’s commission elections in November.

The ACLU and NAACP sued another Florida city earlier this year over their redistricting map, and a federal judge has already agreed with their allegations of racial gerrymandering.

A judge ordered the City of Jacksonville in October to redraw district lines after plaintiffs sued the city arguing they packed Black voters into four city council districts to weaken their power in the remaining three.

Copyright 2022 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Joshua Ceballos