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Stephen Holmes

Galveston adopts all-white Commissioners Court map

In case you missed it.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

Dozens of residents crowded into a small county annex building Friday afternoon to urge, beg, lecture and warn commissioners against approving new precinct maps that dissenters called unfair, undemocratic and potentially illegal.

The protest, mostly by county Democrats and Black residents, culminated with a speech by Commissioner Stephen Holmes, the only Democrat and only minority member of the court, who said the maps would put people of his precinct at an electoral disadvantage.

“It’s about the people of Precinct 3 being able to pick the candidate of their choice,” Holmes said. “It’s not just an election, this is their life. They fought this for years.”

Holmes told the court the maps were drawn with a “discriminatory purpose” and presented his own versions of new precincts that would maintain the status quo in the county.

“We are not going to go quietly into the night,” Holmes said. “We are going to rage, rage, rage until justice is done.”

A majority of the court wasn’t moved by the outpouring of opposition, however.

Commissioners voted 3-1 to approve a precinct map that changes the balance of political power in the county. The map redraws political lines to give Republican voters a majority in each of four precincts.

Holmes’ Precinct 3 now contains a majority of Democratic voters based on results of recent partisan elections. The other three precincts already contained mostly Republican voters.

County Judge Mark Henry and commissioners Darrell Apffel and Joe Giusti voted in favor of the map. Holmes voted against it. Commissioner Ken Clark was absent. In a text, Clark said he was out of town because of a pre-planned family trip.

The county was compelled to draw new precinct lines to make population adjustments based on the 2020 census. Commissioners are required by law to have roughly equal-sized precincts by population.

Commissioners gave themselves an option to vote on two maps designed by a Republican Party strategist hired earlier this year. One map made minimal changes to precinct lines that mostly maintained the status quo. The second, the one approved Friday, makes extensive change.

The approved map doesn’t just change the party makeup of the county’s precincts. It also changes their racial makeup.

By the county’s own analysis, the new map would divide minority populations so that every precinct is mostly made up of white voters.

Holmes is Black, and his precinct is the only one where a majority of voters are Black or Hispanic.

You can see the proposed maps here, with Map 2 being what was adopted and Map 1 being close to what currently exists. Ari Berman, who notes a lot of similar activity by Republicans going on around the country, brings more details.

For more than two decades Holmes has represented a district running through the center of Galveston County where Blacks and Hispanics comprise a majority of eligible voters. But under the new maps approved by three white, male GOP county commissioners, voters of color would make up just 26 percent of eligible voters in Holmes’ new district, reducing the minority vote by a staggering 28 points and likely dooming his re-election chances in 2024.

Such a move would have been unthinkable and illegal before the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, ruling that states like Texas and jurisdictions like Galveston County with a long history of discrimination no longer needed to approve voting changes and electoral boundaries with the federal government. As a result of that decision—and the failure by Democrats to overcome four GOP filibusters in order to pass federal legislation protecting voting rights and outlawing extreme gerrymandering, such as the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—Republicans are erasing decades of long-fought gains for voters of color, returning parts of the South to a pre-1965 status quo where conservative whites have effectively denied political representation to previously disenfranchised communities of color and are preventing major demographic changes from leading to shifts in political power.

[…]

Some of the GOP’s top mapmakers are behind the strategy to eliminate representation for communities of color. In 2011, Galveston County hired the firm run by GOP gerrymandering guru Thomas Hofeller to redraw districts for the county commission, justices of the peace, and constable offices. Hofeller practically invented modern gerrymandering and was well-known for drawing maps that aggressively helped Republicans.

Along with his partner Dale Oldham, Hofeller drew congressional districts in North Carolina that were struck down by the courts for racial and partisan gerrymandering. He also urged the Trump administration to add a question about US citizenship to the 2020 census so that the GOP could draw legislative districts that “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites,” he wrote.

The districts Hofeller drew in Galveston were blocked in 2012 by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act for reducing representation for communities of color. But two months after the Supreme Court’s decision gutting the VRA in June 2013, Galveston enacted the justice of the peace and constable districts that were previously deemed discriminatory, becoming one of the first jurisdictions in the country to target communities of color following the Court’s decision.

Hofeller passed away in 2018, but Galveston County hired Oldham to draw its commissioner districts in 2021. Holmes said he had “minimal interaction” with Oldham, but when they first spoke Oldham asked Holmes to draw the map he wanted for his district, which Holmes thought was odd because Oldham, not Holmes, was the mapmaker. Holmes sent Oldham a rough map of the district he wanted, but when Oldham traveled to Galveston to meet with the commissioners the maps he showed Holmes looked nothing like the one he suggested. “You didn’t draw the map I asked you to draw,” Holmes said he told Oldham. One map diluted the minority vote in Holmes’ district by adding a predominantly white area along the Gulf Coast, while another completely dismantled his district by taking away Galveston and other diverse, Democratic-leaning areas and concentrating his precinct in the heavily Republican and overwhelmingly white northern parts of the county.

Holmes objected to both maps, but when he talked to Oldham next over Zoom, “he showed me the same damn maps again,” Holmes said.

Commissioner Holmes has urged his constituents to contact the Justice Department and ask them to intervene. He has talked about filing a lawsuit, and even though I don’t have much faith in that vehicle these days, I hope he does. I don’t know what else there is to do. I’m sure all of the Harris County Republicans who have complained about the “radical changes” made to our map will be quick to condemn this one as well. Houston Public Media has more.