Miami ordered to draw new voting map months before elections for 3 commission seats

U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore has ordered the city of Miami to draw a new voting map with different district boundaries, shifting political lines months before elections for three city commission seats.

Moore’s order, issued Tuesday morning, followed a lawsuit brought by community groups accusing the city of racial gerrymandering when commissioners sought to preserve the ethnic makeup of the five-person board. Community groups sued in December, claiming the maps adopted last year broke up Coconut Grove, Flagami, Overtown and other neighborhoods for the sake of hitting racial or ethnic quotas in the districts.

“The Court finds that Plaintiffs suffer serious harm when the legislature sorts its citizens based on race,” Moore wrote, “and, subsequently, when those individuals vote in racially gerrymandered districts.”

The judge ordered the city to work with the community groups, represented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, to create a new map over the next 30 days. In a court filing last week, ACLU attorneys said they would be prepared to present one or more alternative maps “very shortly” after a ruling blocking the map drawn in 2022.

Miami’s top lawyer, City Attorney Victoria Méndez, said in a statement: “We are disappointed with the Court’s decision as it is still our position that the City complied with the Voting Rights Act. We will be reviewing our options on how to best proceed.”

Moore agreed with a recommendation from a federal magistrate judge that said the city used “racial quotas” in an effort to ensure diversity on the board. Representing the community groups, attorneys from the ACLU have pointed to public meetings where commissioners fixated on creating district boundaries that preserve a board that included three Hispanic members, one Black member and one “anglo” member in a seat long held by a commissioner who is non-Hispanic and white.

Read more: Miami should redraw commission districts over racial redistricting plan, magistrate says

The advocacy groups, which include two local branches of the NAACP, Engage Miami and Coconut Grove community group GRACE, accused the city of adopting an unconstitutional map after commissioners shifted district boundaries in 2022. Every 10 years after the U.S. Census, the city reevaluates the boundaries of its five districts in an effort to evenly distribute political representation.

Tuesday evening, the plaintiffs group released two potential maps it sent to city officials.

The Allapattah neighborhood is united in District 1 and West Grove, one of Miami’s historically Black neighborhoods, rejoins the rest of Coconut Grove in District 2. In District 3, the Shenandoah neighborhood is reunited and all of Flagami moves into District 4. The neighborhoods of Edgewater and Morningside move into District 5, which gives up parts of downtown in the proposed map.

”This case is not about one particular area of the city. It’s about all five districts,” said Nicholas Warren, an ACLU lawyer out of Tallahassee. “All five districts were designed to divide up the city by racial lines.”

Both sides in the litigation agreed Miami’s District 5 should be drawn to make it easier for Black voters to elect a preferred candidate in an election, rather than having that minority group’s voting power diluted by splitting up majority-Black neighborhoods. District 5 is represented by Christine King, the board’s only Black member.

Even so, the suit claims Miami needed a more narrow focus on race in creating the District 5 boundaries and asked that they be redrawn in compliance with federal standards for protecting minority voting rights. Moore agreed and included District 5 in ordering Miami to submit a new map.

In a statement, King said she wanted Miami to create a map where “all voices in the City of Miami are represented.”

Changes to district boundaries could alter the political dynamics in a year when voters will elect three commissioners to represent neighborhoods including Allapattah, Flagami, Coconut Grove, Brickell and downtown.

Three of the five incumbents are up for reelection in November: District 1’s Alex Diaz de la Portilla and District 4’s Manolo Reyes, Hispanic men who were in office when the board approved the voting map last year, and District 2’s Sabina Covo, a Hispanic woman who won a special election in February for a redrawn district that had previously been represented by white, non-Hispanic men.

In a statement, Covo said she wanted the anti-gerrymandering rules in Florida’s Constitution to guide Miami’s new maps. She said that district lines should not be used to split areas with shared interests and needs.

“We must keep communities of interest intact and neighborhoods like Coconut Grove, downtown and Brickell together to avoid unnecessary boundary divisions,” she said.

Commissioners anticipated Moore’s ruling. At a May 11 meeting, the commission discussed asking its consultant to draw alternative maps. The discussion began with Díaz de la Portilla suggesting the city could abandon single-member districts altogether and return to at-large seats, where each commissioner would be elected in citywide votes.

Warren, the ACLU lawyer, said that kind of change would require a city referendum and isn’t a possible fix for the problems identified by the federal judge.

In a statement, Díaz de la Portilla said he wasn’t ready to give up on Miami’s fight for the 2022 redistricting process. “I look forward to continuing the legal debate that will clearly demonstrate that this commission is correct,” he said. In a second statement, he added: “But some tweaking is never a bad thing.”