Federal judge weighs whether Miami needs to redraw voting maps before November election

·6 min read
Pedro Portal/pportal@miamiherald.com

When attorneys challenging the constitutionality of Miami’s voting map need to back up their allegation that district boundaries were drawn along racial lines, they just turn to the tape.

In public meetings from November 2021 through March 2022, multiple commissioners stated their intention to keep the makeup of the City Commission as it has been for two decades, with districts drawn in such a way that it increases the likelihood that voters elect three Hispanic commissioners, one Black commissioner and one non-Hispanic white commissioner to the five-member board that governs the city of Miami.

Over the course of those hearings, Commissioner Joe Carollo said the original idea of drawing single-member districts was so that “there would be an African American sitting in this commission and there would be an Anglo,” and “that there were three Hispanic districts.”

“Yes, we are gerrymandering to preserve those seats,” Commissioner Manolo Reyes said during one of those public meetings.

“Our goal here is to have an African American district, . . . a white district, . . . and three Hispanic districts,” said Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla in a meeting.

These and other statements were quoted by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday as they argued in federal court that Miami commissioners intended to shift district boundaries using race as a predominant factor. U.S. Magistrate Judge Lauren F. Louis heard arguments after ACLU attorneys asked for a preliminary injunction to block the city from using the redrawn map, approved in March 2022, in the upcoming November city election.

READ MORE: Lawsuit accuses Miami of ‘racial gerrymandering’ in drawing new voting districts

ACLU lawyers represent several individuals and community groups who have sued the city, accusing commissioners of approving an unconstitutional voting map that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Coconut Grove community group GRACE, two local branches of the NAACP and Engage Miami are among the organizations suing the city.

“It’s our position that the most straightforward way to figure out what the commission wanted to do was to read their own words about what they said they wanted to do at the time they made those decisions,” said Nicholas Warren, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida. “And I think that all inexorably points toward dividing the city by race.”

In a written statement provided to the Miami Herald after publication of this article online, City Attorney Victoria Méndez’s office defended the city’s redrawn map.

“The prime objective of the City of Miami’s redistricting plan was to ensure that it complies with the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act and we are confident that the Court will find that it does,” wrote attorney George Wysong, a division chief in Méndez’s office.

Attorneys representing the city argued that no racial gerrymandering occurred in this round of redistricting and that there’s a difference between what commissioners said and the plan that was eventually enacted.

At one point, the judge questioned the distinction.

“I got it in black and white,” said Louis, pointing to the commission meeting transcripts being cited. “And the response is, ‘They may have said that, but that’s not what they meant?’ ”

On Wednesday, Christopher Johnson, an attorney from GrayRobinson hired by the city as outside counsel on the case, called the suit an “odd case” because it appears to challenge the thinking of drawing districts that has been in place for two decades. In 1997, voters passed a referendum creating districts after a citywide election the previous year left Miami without a Black elected official. This led to the creation of three districts that were likely to elect Hispanics, one to favor white non-Hispanics and another to favor Blacks.

In a closing statement, Johnson said the opposing side was focused on the fact that commissioners “talked about race a lot at these meetings.”

“Were they then required, because they talked about race, to have dismantled it?” he asked, rhetorically.

When Louis posed a similar question to the ACLU legal team, Warren responded.

“I think yes, the city would have to start from scratch,” he said.

Miami’s majority-Black district

Another part of the case hinges on whether the city did enough homework to justify redrawing boundaries in a way that made sure slightly more than half of the voting-age population of District 5 was Black. District 5 Commissioner Christine King, the city’s only Black elected official, had expressed concerns in early 2022 when an early plan by redistricting consultant Miguel De Grandy considered a Black voting-age population of less than 50% in District 5. After commissioners’ comments, the percentage was bumped up to about 50% in the final plan.

In court Wednesday, attorneys for the community groups argued that the commission’s goals were arbitrary, and they did not study voting trends and other analyses that could show there wouldn’t be a need for a minimum 50% threshold in order for Black voters to have a fair chance at electing their preferred candidate.

The city’s side said they did enough of an analysis through the work of De Grandy, a former state lawmaker with decades of experience in redistricting, including two previous cycles in the city of Miami, and his co-consultant Steve Cody, a Palmetto Bay councilman, political consultant and suspended lawyer with years of experience in voting maps. He was suspended in 2013 for bouncing a check and failing to keep a client informed about a case.

De Grandy was the only witness to be questioned in court Wednesday. He testified that he relied on his expertise and practice as a land-use attorney to predict that District 5 would be largely gentrified in the next decade, creating a justification for increasing the percentage of the Black voting-age population today past 50%.

De Grandy also said the Hispanic community is not monolithic, so conversations about the Hispanic vote should take into account generational differences and party affiliations, which create a diversity in Miami’s majority-Hispanic electorate.

He pointed out that he never saw District 2, which has most of Miami’s coastal neighborhoods, as an “Anglo” district, and he noted that district elected a Colombian-American woman, Sabina Covo, to the commission in a special election in February.

What’s next?

Louis did not issue a ruling. She is expected to issue a report and recommendation to a U.S. District Court judge in the coming weeks, who could hear from both sides again before issuing a final ruling.

Attorneys representing GRACE and the other groups said they hope to force the city back to the drawing board as soon as possible so that a court-approved map could be put in place before Aug. 1, a deadline set by county elections officials.

Should the city be forced to redraw its district boundaries, this year’s elections could be thrown into political disarray. There are elections in Districts 1, 2, and 4 in November. The qualifying period for candidates ends Sept. 23.