Issue #153: The Politics of Redistricting in Gadsden County, Florida
Racial politics in Florida's lone Majority-Black County
Back in October of 2022, I wrote about the internal politics in Gadsden County, Florida. The lone majority-black county in the state, sitting just west of Tallahassee, was in the middle of a scandal. The county commission, which is comprised of five single-member districts, was made up 5 black democrats; all elected to the commission districts you can see below (with registration by race under it).
In 2022, the Democratic Commissioner for District 2 resigned early. As a result, Governor DeSantis appointed a white Republican, Jeffrey Moore, who initially planned to run for a full term that November. However, Moore was forced to resign after photos of him in a KKK costume for a Halloween party came out. The seat remained vacant until November, and Democrat Alonzetta Johnson-Simpkins defeated Republican replacement Larry Clayton in the general election. Note Moore still appeared on the ballot due to the late change in candidates.
Gadsden is actually so Democratic, giving Biden 68% of the vote in 2020, that this race for District 2 was the first time a Republican bothered to run for county commission in the 21st century. Otherwise, all major contests in Gadsden have been between black and white democrats, or non-partisan candidates. While it is one party rule in the county, there has been ample tension, often along racial lines, in the county. I wrote about much of this in my 2022 article.
There I looked at the tense 2004 Sheriff election, the first time a black man won the post, and a controversy that emerged in 2011 that showed two white commissioners conspired with an ally to get black employees fired. That scandal led to a series of elections that saw both of those members losing their elections. I recommend giving that article a read to understand the internal dynamics that shaped the latest controversy within the county.
That latest controversy was the topic of redistricting.
A Malapportioned Map
When I originally wrote my article in 2022, I noticed that the Gadsden commission districts were way out of date. The map had not been adjusted to reflect internal population changes. Indeed, the county commission districts had not been updated since 2003. As a result, several districts were well outside the proper population. Based on the 2020 census, each district should have around 8,700 voters. Under the map, the largest district had 11,500, with the lowest at 7,200. Thanks to District 1 being 32% over-population and District 4 being 17% under population, the total population deviation was a staggering 49%.
When it comes to redistricting, the courts have often sighted 10% as the maximum deviation when it comes to district populations. Gadsden had blown past this.
Believe it or not this is a common issue in many parts of the country. Counties, especially smaller rural ones, often do not redistrict after the census. State laws are often vague and commissioners often do not have clear guidance on what is to be done. In Florida, several counties have redrawn their maps in just the last few years; some for the first time in decades! Neighboring Jackson County finally updated their decades-old map in 2022. Major urban counties are not the issue, as it is often rural counties with small governments and little cash that lag behind. The burden of hiring outside help to conduct redistricting or run analysis can hurt budgets. Larger counties rarely have this financial crunch; and many have charters that govern the redistricting schedule.
Redistricting came up sporadically in Gadsden County in from 2012 and onward. Pushes to redraw the maps often came from Commissioners Doug Croley and Gene Morgan, the two white democrats I discussed in my initial newsletter; the ones who conspired to fire black employees and replace with white ones. Meeting minutes show questions about obligations, population figures, and if an outside counsel should be hired. Ultimately no formal action would be taken. The issue would pop up off an on. After Croley lost his 2014 primary to black Democrat Anthony Viegbesie, the new commissioner also brought up the issue of redrawing the map.
Commissioners Croley and Morgan pushing on redistricting reflected a narrative among some white voters in the county. The theory was that the out-of-date map was responsible for keeping the establishment (black officials) in charge. The push to redraw the map fits in with the notion “a broken clock is right twice a day.” The map needed to be redrawn, but I do not see malice in those who did not move forward on redrawing. Likewise, Commissioners Morgan and Croley were hardly altruistic actors. The map was not a malicious gerrymander - it was out of date.
Everything came to a head in December of 2023. The issue of redistricting was hitting a fever pitch, with a lawsuit threat emerging. On December 19th, the commission agreed 5-0 to direct their county administrator to plan a workshop on redrawing the lines for commission and school board. Just days later, on December 22, the Gadsden County Republican Party, along with resident William Durham, filed a federal malapportionment lawsuit. The suit, which you can read here, specifically focused on District 1 and its over-population relative to the rest of the districts.
With a lawsuit filed and hearing set for February, the county commission had two options; redraw before then, or risk losing control of the process. As a result, the commissioners opted to redraw in January.
The New Map
With the lawsuit looming, the Gadsden Commission opted to expedite the process of redistricting; aiming to have it done in January. A workshop was held on January 8th and January 16th to discuss the process and take bids on maps. Many commissioners expressed sorrow at changing lines, as the small county population can make such processes more “personal.” Commissioner Eric Hinson, who represents County 1, which was destined to lose people due to its size, was especially mournful of that fact.
Two plans were submitted to the County; a plan from KSA Consulting, which he county had contracted to study the issue an offer a proposal, and a plan from the American Civil Liberties Union. From my perspective, the ACLU plan aimed to change the nature of the maps the least, merely getting population in order, while the KSA map (which you can view as Map 1A.2 in this packet) rethought several districts in a more complex manor.
On January 23rd, the County Commission opted to go with the plan submitted by the ACLU. The plan can be seen below. The colors are the new districts, with the old lines in black. The map was approved 4-1, with Commissioner Hinson voting NO, largely on grounds he understood the process was needed but didn’t want to lose any constituents.
The map largely shifts districts west; which reflects the growing population around Midway and Havana; much of it spillover from neighboring Tallahassee. Midway was forced to be split between districts 1 and 5; which was really unavoidable. Population clustering in rural counties can make redistricting a touch process at times. In the case of Midway, District 5 grabbed the south end of the city.
Four districts got physically smaller, with District 1 shrinking by 24%. District 3, meanwhile, had to increase by around 1/3; now making up 40% of the entire counties land mass. It further highlights the population center of power has shifted closer to the Tallahassee region. The new lines have a population deviation of just 5.3%, with all districts between 8,400 and 8,800 people.
From a racial perspective, the new lines largely maintain a plan that is 3 majority-black districts and two white districts. Below is the racial makeup of the old and new lines, using Voting-Age Population data.
Under the new lines, District’s 4 & 5 remain overwhelming black. District 1, which lost a chunk of Midway, is still majority black, but less so. District 2 remains largely the same, while district 3 is now almost majority-white.
So we have a census-profile. However, what does that mean electorally? After all, the claim from some was the old map was there to maintain a certain political power. So did getting the map within population metrics really change anything?
The Politics of the New Map
As stated before, Gadsden is a very Democratic county. Republican voting is heavily concentrated in the rural white population. However, many conservative “Dixiecrats” also still exist in the county. The voter registration figures by party and race can be seen here.
All five districts are heavily Democratic in registration. More interesting, however, is the registration by race. Like the census data, registration figures show 3 black and 2 white districts.
As stated in 2022, the District 2 race was the first time a Republican had run for a seat since the 1990s. In 2018 and 2020 saw NPA candidates as well. Registration is one metric, but how is broad partisanship? Well here is the lines laid over the 2020 Presidential Election.
The Presidential results closely match the race map; a common occurrence in the rural panhandle of Florida. Exact calculations can be difficult due to split precincts, but with confidence I can say all five districts backed Joe Biden by over 10 points.
The only time any districts become really close was 2022, when historically bad black turnout led to shrinking Democratic support. Democratic Governor nominee Charlie Crist took 62% in the county, while Democratic Senate nominee Val Demings took 64%. That year, the electorate for Gadsden was less black thanks to that turnout. In 2020 it was 57% Black and 38% white. In 2022 it was 53% black, 44% white.
Below I have estimates for 2020 President and 2022 Governor & Senator by the new commission seats.
The weaker black turnout in 2022 led to District 3, which covers more of the rural white population, only narrowly backing Demings, and likely going for DeSantis. This would put District 3 as the most GOP friendly, but 2022 aside, this is still leaning Democratic on average.
With this partisanship in mind, the map can easily still result in five black democrats as members. Below is the democratic registration by race, as well as 2022 August primary turnout. After all, based on those partisan figures, the primary is clearly the most important contest.
All five districts are over 65% black in terms of their democratic primaries. This matches with the current lines as well. That is why even the two districts that are majority or plurality white still won by black candidates. The internal political dynamics give black voters a strong say in all seats. Nine times out of ten, the Democratic Primary will decide each commissioner.
If you read the Gadsden Republican Party lawsuit, it seems clear to me they had the believe a remap would likely make a district more amenable to their party. This hasn’t really happened. Even District 3, the closest, was similar in partisanship under the old lines. The language in their suit clearly seems to imply they believed Distrit 1 might be a more GOP-friendly seat under a redraw. I mean it got whiter, but not nearly to the degree needed to be a GOP seat. Both map drafts submitted simply aimed to pass a population-balanced map that kept communities together where possible. Such simple edits to a map were not going to radically change the makeup of the commission control.
Whatever the motived of the Gadsden Republican Party was, hey we finally got another updated map in a rural Florida County. I won’t begrudge them. After all, a broken clock is right twice a day.