Galveston County Commissioners Court violated the Voting Rights Act when it approved a 2021 map that greatly limited voting power for Black and Latino voters in the county, a judge ruled Friday.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey V. Brown found that the map “denies Black and Latino voters the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and the opportunity to elect a representative of their choice to the commissioners court.” Brown was nominated by Donald Trump in 2019 to the U.S District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
Commissoner’s court must file a revised redistricting plan by Oct. 20 to be adopted before the window to submit applications for the 2024 Galveston County Commissoner’s Court election opens on November 11. The deadline to file is December 11.
“We are thrilled with today’s decision – now, Black and Latino Galveston residents will once again have a fair shot to influence the decisions that shape their community,” Sarah Xiyi Chen, attorney for the Voting Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a press release about the verdict.
“The residents of Galveston fought hard for this win, sharing their stories and pride from the historic Precinct 3 – we are glad they are finally able to get the relief they deserve. We hope the Commissioners Court takes this opportunity to draw a new map that ensures that the community will have their votes, voices, and needs heard for the next decade.”
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, county commissioners and county public information officer Spencer Lewis did not return multiple calls for comment.
On Nov. 12, 2021, the Galveston County Commissioner’s Court voted to adopt a map where Black and Hispanic voters did not make up the majority of any precinct despite making up about 40 percent of the county’s total population. Under this new adopted map, white voters made up about 60 percent of the eligible voting pool in each precinct, according to the initial lawsuit.
Commissioner Stephen Holmes has represented Precinct 3 since 1999, which previously consisted of the county’s sole non-white voting majority – near 58 percent – and represented cities such as La Marque, Dickinson and parts of Texas City.
The newly adopted 2021 map shifted Precinct 3 to the northern border of the county and consists of predominantly white voters. Under this new map, minority voters made up less than a third of Precinct 3.
If the map were to stand, Holmes would most likely not be re-elected and Galveston Commissoner’s court would turn into a 5-0 Republican majority.
Holmes – who until last year was the county’s sole Black commissioner – said he’s glad to see power put back into the hands of voters.
“It’s never been about me or whether I would have this opportunity. What it was always about for me was the opportunity for the people of Precinct 3 to be able to elect the candidate of their choice,” Holmes said. “So whether that be me or somebody else or somebody Black or somebody white or Latino whoever. (The residents) would control that election and would have that opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.”
The consolidated lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Galveston branches of the NAACP and the local League of United Latin American Citizens, the U.S. Department of Justice and current and former county leadership.
This lawsuit was the first test of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 since the Supreme Court upheld it in June in regard to the redistricting of Alabama’s congressional maps. This section prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race or color.
Robert Quintero, president of the Galveston branch of LULAC, said challenging the maps was important to ensure a representative of color was able to stay on the court after the two-week trial in August.
“We would not have a representative that looked like one of us on the Commissioner’s court and had a vested interest in our community,” he said.
Quintero said his organization and other minority groups in the county weren’t given the opportunity to be included in the conversations about redistricting.
“Everybody wants inclusion unless they look like me,” he said.
Chen, the attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, said their hope is for a fair map to be in place before the candidate filing deadline in November.
She said practices to consolidate power in places that already have a political majority is a trend they are seeing pop up all around Texas. As a result, Black and Brown voters do not receive equal opportunity.
“There’s a lot of work to be done to really vindicate people’s rights to have equal opportunity to use their voice and the representative government,” she said.
Because of the tendency of African Americans to vote for Democrats, Republican gerrymandering, almost by definition, will result in districts reducing the ability for underrepresented minorities to elect the candidate of their choice, said Mark P. Jones, chair of Latin American Studies and professor of political science at Rice University.
Under the adopted map in 2021, while Holmes wouldn’t have much impact on countywide policy, he does have a great impact over issues in his individual precinct, Jones said.
“Just having one person there, you at least have somebody asking questions,” he said. “Or at least to put a spotlight on things that they can’t block that maybe that they can at least publicize.”
The court will host an in-person meeting Nov. 1 to decide which redistricting plan will be ordered into effect.
Plaintiffs expressed their excitement with the verdict Friday during a news conference hosted by the Texas Civil Rights project.
“This ruling ensures equality in Galveston County,” said Mary Patrick, President of the Galveston Branch NAACP. “This is monumental.”