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Miami Sued for Racial Gerrymandering in New Voting Districts

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit accusing the city commissioners of dividing the voting map along racial lines to allegedly weaken the political power of Black voters. The lawsuit asks for an entirely new map.

(TNS) —A lawsuit filed Thursday, Dec. 15, accuses Miami of creating racially segregated districts when officials redrew the boundaries of the city’s voting map in the spring, a controversial process that drew opposition from neighborhood groups over concerns that the plan weakened the political power of Black voters in Coconut Grove.

On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in federal court accusing city commissioners of splitting the voting map along racial lines in order to make the five districts each have its own ethnic majority or plurality (three Hispanic, one Black, one non-Hispanic white).

Representing community groups and individual city residents, the ACLU contends that the city’s voting map is unconstitutional and violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act by packing Black and Hispanic voters into certain districts and diluting those voters’ influence in adjacent districts.

“Simply put, this map violates Miamians’ rights to equal protection under the law enshrined in the 14th Amendment,” said Nicholas Warren, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida. “Commissioners have abused their power to draw unfair maps that treat Black and Hispanic voters as pawns in a power game rather than constituents to be served. This lawsuit is a chance to right this wrong and enact meaningful representation for all Miami.”

In the lawsuit, the ACLU is representing community groups from Coconut Grove, the South Dade and Miami-Dade branches of the NAACP, civil engagement organization Engage Miami and four city residents. They are asking a federal judge to throw out the map and force the city to start over. If the lawsuit stretches beyond November 2023 when three commission seats are up for election, then the plaintiffs want the city to hold special elections.

The 55-page lawsuit details the redistricting process that spanned several months in early 2022, a process that takes place every 10 years following the U.S. Census to ensure the city is following federal voting laws and ensuring fair representation following population changes. The process is meant to protect the city from a legal challenge.

This year Census data showed the city’s District 2, which includes most of Miami’s coastal neighborhoods from Coconut Grove north through Brickell, downtown, Edgewater and Morningside, grew so much that it was overpopulated compared to other districts.

Consultant Who Drew the Map Defends the Process

Miguel De Grandy, a lobbyist, former state lawmaker and the city’s lead redistricting consultant, said Thursday that the main driver of the commission’s approach was to maintain the core of existing districts, “a well-recognized and judicially accepted traditional redistricting principle.”

“The districts adopted in the plan are relatively compact and join politically cohesive communities in a city where significant voting polarization exists between classes under the Voting Rights Act,” De Grandy said. “Race and ethnicity were only considered to the extent necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act.”

De Grandy worked with Stephen Cody, a longtime political consultant, suspended lawyer and children’s book author who serves on the Palmetto Bay Council. City Attorney Victoria Méndez on Thursday said the city “looks forward to addressing the allegations in court.”

ACLU attorneys argue in the lawsuit that “political cohesion” was used as a shorthand for keeping racially homogeneous areas together.

Yanelis Valdes, Engage Miami’s director of advocacy and organizing and an individual plaintiff in the case, pointed to the contentious redistricting hearings in which city residents, many from Coconut Grove, argued against dividing up neighborhoods. In particular, several Grove residents spoke out against moving a portion of the historically Black West Grove from District 2 into District 4.

“Miami residents showed up and spoke out against gerrymandered maps, but our elected officials refused to listen,” Valdes said, in a statement. “Now, we are going to court because Miami deserves better than this racially gerrymandered map that slices through communities and denies representation.”

What Commissioners Said During Hearings

Through multiple public hearings earlier this year, commissioners stated a desire to maintain the five-person commission’s racial and ethnic balance while shifting boundaries so that there is roughly the same population in each district. Currently, the commission has three Hispanic men (Alex Díaz de la Portilla, Joe Carollo and Manolo Reyes), one Black woman (Christine King), and one Asian American man (Ken Russell).

In March they approved a final map that split off a part of the Grove with many Black residents but maintained a slim Black majority in District 5, currently represented by King. Commissioners debated several versions, with Russell pushing to keep the Grove together and Díaz de la Portilla and Carollo advocating to draw boundaries that would preserve existing voting patterns and Hispanics’ power in the next decade.

“I feel like my colleagues were not going to compromise their stance on what was best for three Hispanic districts,” King said in March, after siding with Carollo and Díaz de la Portilla to approve the final map.

The ACLU argues that using “race-based thinking” in the City Commission’s decisions violates the rights of individuals in those districts where their voting power is diminished. The suit appears to not only challenge the thinking behind the recent redistricting process but the philosophy that underscored the city’s move to create single-member districts in the late 1990s.

In 1997, voters passed a referendum creating districts after a citywide election the previous year left Miami without a Black elected official. This spurred the creation of three districts that favored Hispanics, one to favor white non-Hispanics and another to favor Blacks.

Warren, the ACLU attorney, said the Voting Rights Act is meant to protect voters’ rights to choose their preferred candidate, and it’s a common misconception that the law requires governments to group minorities together in districts so that at least 51 percent of the district is of a single racial or ethnic group.

“To these commissioners, representation means having a commissioner with the same skin color or ethnic background as you,” Warren said. “And that’s not right.”

He pointed to several South Florida school board and legislative districts that have elected Black representatives despite having less than 50 percent Black voting-age residents.

Warren said his clients want a map that is drawn “for the benefit of the public” that does not undermine minority communities’ rights to elect whomever they want.

“They want the map maker to take the real communities of interest and neighborhood concerns into account when drawing the lines, and not to slice and dice as the commission did earlier this year,” he said.

©2022 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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