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Stephen Holmes

Another look at how Galveston County disenfranchised its voters of color

The Trib takes a deep dive.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

Carver Park in Texas City, created during segregation, is considered the first African American county park in the state. It sits on land donated by descendants of freedmen who survived slavery and pioneered one of Texas’ oldest Black settlements, the footprint of which sits just a few blocks away.

Until last year, the park sat at the heart of Galveston County’s Precinct 3 — the most diverse of the four precincts that choose the commissioners court, which governs the county along with the county judge. Precinct 3 was the lone seat in which Black and Hispanic voters, who make up about 38% of the county’s population, made up the majority of the electorate.

The precinct sliced the middle of coastal Galveston County, stretching from the small city of Dickinson on the county’s northern end through residential areas of Texas City and down to the eastern end of Galveston Island. Its residents included medical professionals and staff drawn in by The University of Texas Medical Branch, petrochemical workers that operate a large cluster of refineries and commuter employees of the nearby NASA Johnson Space Center.

The area stood as an exemplar of Black political power and progress. For 30 years, Black voters — with support from Hispanics — had amassed enough political clout to decide the county commissioner for Precinct 3, propelling Black leaders onto a majority white county commissioners court. They worked to gain stronger footholds in local governments, elevating Black people into city halls across the precinct. Two years ago, they reached a milestone, electing Texas City’s first Black mayor and a city commission on which people of color are the majority.

But the white Republican majority on the Galveston County’s commissioners court decided last November to dismantle Precinct 3. Capitalizing on its first opportunity to redraw commissioner precincts without federal oversight, the court splintered Black and Hispanic communities into majority-white districts.

Under the final map, which will be used for this year’s election and possibly for a decade, white voters make up at least 62% of the electorate in each precinct, though the county’s total population is only about 55% white. Because white voters in Galveston — like Texas generally — tend to support different candidates than Black and Hispanic voters, the map will effectively quash the electoral power of voters of color.

The new map was so egregious to officials at the U.S. Department of Justice that it prompted the department to file its only federal lawsuit at the county level in the entire nation challenging a redistricting plan as discriminatory.

Black residents here have often needed federal intervention to help them pursue equality and fairness. Without it, it’s possible the white power structure will never voluntarily grant them them political equity and would continue threatening the gains they’ve achieved over the last few decades.

“With the district, people feel that they have a voice and a choice. Without it, no voice, no choice,” said Lucille McGaskey, a longtime Galveston County resident whose community in the city of La Marque was drawn out of Precinct 3. “It’s a shame … that it has come to people trying to wipe other people out.”

See here for a bit of background. The piece goes into Galveston’s racial and political history, and recaps how the soon-to-be-all-Republican Commissioners Court rammed through this new map with no real alternatives and with basically zero public input on the last day to adopt a new map. There are two federal lawsuits that have been filed over this new map, which was able to be adopted because preclearance was killed in 2013, but you know how I feel about the likelihood of any justice that way. Indeed, the story notes that Galveston County has “asked for a postponement in the case until possibly 2023 while the U.S. Supreme Court considers a challenge out of Alabama that could further contract the Voting Rights Act’s protections from discrimination in redistricting”. The writing is on the wall here. The only way forward is more voting, at a time when the powers that be have made it as difficult as possible to vote, and to have your vote make a meaningful difference. I don’t know what else to say.

Second lawsuit filed over Galveston redistricting

Similar grounds, different plaintiffs.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

A coalition of civil rights groups in Texas filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Galveston County, alleging that the county’s redistricting plan intentionally discriminates against a growing minority population in the Gulf Coast community.

The complaint, shared first with CNN, marks the second lawsuit that seeks to overturn maps approved by the Republican majority on the county’s governing body. Last month, the Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against the county on similar grounds — in a redistricting dispute that has garnered national attention.

The new lawsuit — brought by the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice on behalf of local branches of the NAACP and the Galveston League of United Latin American Citizens Council 151 — alleges that the new map diminishes the voting power of Black and Hispanic voters by splitting up the only majority-minority precinct.

The new map endangers the reelection of Stephen Holmes, the county’s only Black commissioner, who has served on the board for 22 years. Holmes is next on the ballot in 2024.

The lawsuit alleges the Republicans majority pushed through a “racially discriminatory map” that “largely took place behind closed doors.”

Sarah Chen, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, called the map — and the process used by the Republican majority in the county to approve it — “egregious examples of people in power … exercising that power to dilute the votes of racial minorities.”

[…]

Both this lawsuit and the complaint by the Justice Department underscore the difficult legal terrain that voting rights advocates now face in challenging alleged discriminatory maps. This cycle marks the first round of redistricting since the US Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the so-called preclearance provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

That provision required states with a history of discrimination to first obtain the permission of the federal government or the courts before enacting new laws related to voting.

With those powers gone, the Justice Department’s lawsuit relies largely on another section of the federal voting rights law, Section 2, which puts the burden on the federal government to prove its case.

The lawsuit filed Thursday cites Section 2, but also argues that map violates the constitutional rights of Black and Latino voters to equal protection of the law.

Chen said civil rights groups are looking for “different pathways” in voting rights cases “because victory is never assured.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the complaint. The Texas Civil Rights Project, which is co-counsel along with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, has a tweet thread about this as well. I haven’t read through the two of them so I can’t say where they are specifically similar and different, but the coverage suggests they have overlap. It won’t surprise me if these two lawsuits are eventually combined. I remain less than confident that the plaintiffs will get the relief they seek given the hostility the federal courts have shown towards voting rights in recent years, but I will say that I’m old enough to remember a day when a white majority reducing the political power of communities of color for the reasons of “because we can, that’s why” was considered to be in poor taste. I feel like we should try to return to those days, but what do I know? Daily Kos has more.

Justice Department sues over Galveston County Commissioners Court map

Good, but remember how the federal courts are these days before getting too optimistic.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

The Department of Justice on Thursday sued Galveston County over its new redistricting map, accusing Republican county officials of violating the Voting Rights Act last year when they carved up their Commissioners Court precincts into four majority-white districts.

The redrawn map dismantles the precinct represented by Commissioner Stephen Holmes, the only Democrat and minority member of the court, all but ensuring his defeat in 2024 if the map remains intact.

Under the new layout, Republicans are poised to gain a 5-0 majority on the governing body for Galveston County, where 38 percent of voters cast their ballots for Democrat Joe Biden.

In a 25-page complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Justice Department officials alleged that Galveston County’s freshly drawn boundaries dilute the voting strength of Black and Hispanic voters, denying them “an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.” The lawsuit accuses the county of violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which broadly bars racially discriminatory voting practices, including those that minimize the voting strength of racial minority groups.

In asking the court to toss the precincts for “any future elections” — and order the county to redraw a map “that complies with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act” — the Justice Department also cited Galveston County’s history of drawing federal scrutiny over redistricting. In 2012, federal officials struck down the county’s commissioner, constable and justice-of-the-peace maps, finding that they ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act by diminishing the power of minority voters.

“Over the course of the past three decades, Galveston County has sought to eliminate electoral opportunities for the County’s Black and Hispanic voters,” the lawsuit reads. “The County has a long history of adopting discriminatory redistricting plans.”

[…]

Commissioners Court approved the latest boundaries in November, uprooting Holmes’ Precinct 3 from parts of the county he had represented since being appointed to the court in 1999. While the district had previously cut through the middle of Galveston County, covering an area where the majority of eligible voters were Black and Hispanic, it is now consolidated in the largely white and Republican northwest corner of the county, taking in Friendswood and League City.

Holmes has said he expects to be replaced by a white candidate, given that only about a quarter of the eligible voters in his new precinct are minorities.

“Even though Galveston County is 45 percent minority, every single member of the Galveston County Commissioners Court, under the new map, is going to be Anglo,” Holmes said in an interview last November. “Minorities would not be represented by, or have the opportunity to elect, the candidate of their choice.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the complaint. The story notes the 2012 redistricting in Galveston that was blocked for being discriminatory, and also notes that that happened back when we still had preclearance. We don’t have that, and we do have a Supreme Court that is increasingly aggressive in allowing all kinds of radical Republican redistricting maps to stand, so like I said, I’m not optimistic. But what else are you gonna do? Reform Austin has more.

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.