Jackson County Commissioners and the Jackson County School Board will meet in a special joint session at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 19, to discuss the potential re-drawing of district lines for both bodies.
Their district lines currently mirror each other, and commissioners are anticipating that will be the goal this time around. It has been more than 30 years since the district lines were drawn.
Two major issues are in the forefront: The need to get in compliance with a federal consent order requiring that at least one district has a Black-majority voting-age population — or to get released from the 35-year-old consent order — and to balance the overall per-district voting-age population as require by the Florida Constitution.
Jackson County Commission attorney Michelle Jordan recommended that a consultant be hired to help in the process, but commissioners want to try it on their own first, although they left open the possibility of eventually taking her advice. Jordan pointed out some circumstances that she said she felt makes that assist necessary.
For instance, the federal consent order from 1986 is still in play and will require both boards to submit their redistricting plan to the federal Northern District of Florida court for approval. The new lines must be proven in compliance with that 35-year-old order.
But Jordan is also recommending that the county try to win release from that order and commissioners indicated they want to try. But with it still a controlling factor, the board must meet its requirements.
The order resulted in the cessation of the then-existing at-large voting system and implemented the current by-district voting system. It was the resolution of a class action lawsuit which asserted that the at-large system “excludes Black representation and participation and minimizes and cancels out Black voting strength in violation of their rights secured by the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” the consent order states.
The order goes on to say that the school board and county commission had agreed to ensure that at least one voting district was drawn in such a way that at least 50 percent of the population was Black. District 1, currently served by Commissioner Alex McKinnie, was thusly drawn.
But the most recent census report indicates that the county is already out of compliance with that provision of the court order, since District 1 no longer has a Black majority population. Currently, only 44.3 percent are Black, according to the set of numbers the county was presented by the NAACP and ACLU Foundation. Another set of numbers submitted to the board by staff vary slightly but also indicate that the district is no longer a Black majority.
That district’s overall population is also now significantly lower than the other four, which presents another problem: State constitutional guidelines call for governments to ensure that overall populations are essentially equal in all their districts.
The population count is under review by the county, but two sets of numbers have been generated for the board to consider and those differ slightly. According to figures submitted to the board jointly by the local NAACP branch and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, District 1 has 5,836 residents. According to a staff report obtained by Jackson County Commissioner Clint Pate, District 1 has 5,956. According to the NAACP/ACLU letter, District 5 has 9,670 residents. According to Pate’s staff report, District 5 has 9,684. The staff report and the numbers in the letter mesh for Districts 2, 3, and 4.
According to the two reports, the 2020 census indicates that District 1 has 5,836 or 5,959 residents. District 2 has 9,803. District 3 has 7,099. District 4 has 9,626. District 5 has 9,670 or 9,684.
Regardless of which set of figures turns out to be most accurate, the numbers from both also suggest a general population imbalance, not just in District 1, so the boards must look to fix that problem, too, as they tackle redistricting as a whole.
Pate, using the report submitted by staff, added up the five district populations and divided them by five to arrive at a goal for balancing the overall population. He told fellow board members Tuesday that he believes: District 1 needs 2,477 more in its population; District 2 needs to lose 1,369; District 3 needs to add 1,335; District 4 needs to lose 1,192; and District 5 needs to lose 1,250. He said this would accomplish the ideal population of 8,434 in each. NAACP/ACLU’s numbers in that regard are similar but not the same.
It was not clear why some of the staff numbers and the ACLU/NAACP numbers differed, but both appear to exclude the prison populations that exist in some districts.
The redistricting task is multi-faceted.
Pate said he is looking to put all of Graceville in one district when the lines are redrawn; currently, it’s the only municipality that is split between two districts. Making that change, he said, would help the county be more complaint with general districting guidelines, which discourage the splitting of single communities into separate districts.
But he also said he’s not sure the board can achieve that while also achieving the goal of re-drawing the lines to ensure a Black-majority district as the consent order requires. And the county, in drawing such a district, must also take care not to “pack” so many Black voters into one single district that their influence in county/school board matters across the larger landscape is artificially diluted.
Pate said he wasn’t surprised to learn that the overall population numbers were out of balance. He keeps a close eye on voting trends over the long term and had noticed significant declines in the number of people voting in two districts. He said he felt that was an indicator of shifts in population trends.
In recommending that the county try to get released from the consent order, Jordan had written a memo. In it, she said, “Looking towards the future, it may be worthwhile to consider seeking permanent relief from the consent order.
“As noted by the Supreme Court (in a case she’s cited earlier in the long memo), the landscape and demographics of our counties, states, and the US as a whole are changing. Minority leaders continue to increase in number. Indeed, District 1 has retained a Black representative despite losing its Black majority standing in the 2020 census.
“Further, it is possible that through natural population movement, the Black population in Jackson County could inadvertently end up ‘packed’ or segregated into a single voting district in order to maintain the Black majority district, which in theory could dilute the collective voting strength of the Black population overall. Interestingly, District 1 has the smallest population overall (approximately 5,800) with the highest population of Black voters, which, again in theory, would give voters in that District more collective power than voters in other districts with higher populations.”
Jordan goes on to stress the need for a consultant: “The current racial makeup of the (voting age) County as a whole is approximately 66 (percent) White and 26.5 (percent) Black. Ideally, the proposed districts would have a racial makeup that is in proportion with the racial makeup of the County, with the exception of the Court-mandated Black majority district.
“Again, it is highly recommended that the County engage the assistance of an apportionment consultant to ensure that any proposed redistricting plan comply with both Florida and federal law but also with the specific conditions of the consent order.” She’d also told the board that a consultant’s expert testimony might be needed when the county goes to court with its new districting plan.
The numbers submitted by the ACLU/NAACP letter also indicate a roughly 66/26 percent White/Black population.
In addition to considering the many complications involved in redistricting, the county and school board are also under a time pressure. Redistricting is to be done in an odd-numbered year and this one’s coming to a close.