One Man, One Vote. But Not Really

How Jacksonville's election system suppresses the black vote

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"One man, one vote" is the measure of electoral equality in the United States. Regardless of how you parse it, vote dilution occurs when there is at-large representation such as we have in Jacksonville. Elimination of the City Council's at-large seats brings the city to a "level playing field" in electoral terms.

The Task Force on Consolidated Government, charged with examining the charter and suggesting improvements, is about to wrap up its public activities without taking serious note of the obvious and longstanding existence of vote dilution that occurs as a consequence of at-large representation. If nothing is done at this time, it will likely be another decade before the subject is addressed again.

All at-large systems of representation violate the "one man, one vote" standard for equal representation. The most obvious example of how this works in Jacksonville is At-large District 5, where a white Republican was elected countywide to "represent" an at-large district that is less than 20 percent white and 10 percent Republican. This occurred because votes from outside the district diluted the expressed wishes of district voters. At-large elections don't always result in such egregious consequences; but, in tandem with off-year elections that typically feature smaller voter turnouts, at-large elections consistently favor blocs of older, white, better-off and better-educated voters.

The consolidation charter that was agreed to by community consensus in 1967 called for 21 district representatives. The overwhelmingly white legislative delegation altered that to the present 14 district and five at-large seats when it presented a consolidation bill in Tallahassee. Regardless of the intentions of the white delegation majority, the effect was to dilute the vote of African-Americans and voters of modest means. Moreover, 21 single-member districts would have resulted in smaller districts, which presumably would make access to elected officials easier for citizens.

Subsequently, only one African-American, the late Earl Johnson, a powerful black voice and a Democrat in favor of consolidation, was elected to an at-large seat (twice) until the voters insisted that a residency requirement be added because of a concern that at-large seats were being monopolized by white elites. This electoral alteration did not change the at-large voting system, which continues to dilute the vote of African-Americans and all voters of modest means. Since then, three African-Americans have been elected to at-large seats. Two ran as Republicans, Gwen Chandler-Thompson and Glorious Johnson, and one as a Democrat, Kimberly Daniels.

In other words, 11 percent of at-large seats since consolidation have been held by African-Americans — two Republicans and two Democrats — although African-Americans constitute some 30 percent of Duval County's population and are overwhelmingly registered as Democrats. This is the consequence of vote dilution through at-large elections (as well as off-year elections that reduce voter turnout).

Robert Cassanello's 2013 book, To Render Invisible: Jim Crow and Public Life in New South Jacksonville, covers race relations from Reconstruction until 1920, including voting issues. In this period, African-Americans exercised the franchise and held public positions, but gradually were eliminated from meaningful participation by white elites. Three episodes encapsulate this process: the loss of home rule (1888-1892) that occurred in response to a black majority controlling the ballot box in 1888; the 1906 gerrymandering of Jacksonville voting precincts, which eliminated the last majority-black precinct and any hope of African-Americans holding a seat on the City Council until the 1960s; and the passage by the Florida Legislature of a white-primary law that banned African-Americans from voting in the Democratic Party primaries until the 1940s.

What occurred in Tallahassee in 1967 was a continuation of efforts by native white elites to minimize the votes of African-Americans and those of modest means, such as me. Elimination of the at-large seats produces a level playing field in local elections by ending vote dilution. Having 19 representatives from 19 single-member districts lowers the ratio of voters to representative, which makes the local government more accountable to their district electorates.

Jacksonville needs a robust economy and racial comity, and the two are connected at many points. The existing at-large seats are vestiges of a century and more of white suppression of votes by African-Americans and people of modest means. Let's have a level playing field in politics, and then we will be freer to work on the economy. o

The author is a historian who grew up in 
Jacksonville and now lives in Atlantic Beach.

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