Galveston County leaders are preparing to adopt new precinct maps that would either eliminate or dilute the county’s only precinct designed to represent communities of color — and there’s little opponents can do to avert the change.
The two maps under consideration would gut the coalition Black-and-Hispanic representation in Galveston County Precinct 3. One would dismantle the precinct entirely by shifting it inland, and the other would nullify the minority voting advantage by adding to it the largely Anglo Bolivar Peninsula. Republican county leaders employed GOP strategist Dale Oldham to draw the maps.
Either map would likely cost the seat of Commissioner Stephen Holmes, the lone Democrat on the county commissioners court.
“He’s also the only commissioner elected by voters of color in the county as well, so there are significant implications for the Voting Rights Act at play,” said Stephanie Swanson, redistricting chair of the League of Women Voters of Texas.
Holmes, first appointed to the court in 1999, is up for reelection in 2024. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 to eliminate the Voting Rights Act requirement that forced Texas to get permission from the federal government before altering its maps.
“Because preclearance is gone, there’s nothing stopping the county from adopting discriminatory maps this cycle,” Swanson said. “Folks will have to step in, voting rights advocates will have to step in after the fact to file suit.”
Galveston County’s Republican County Judge Mark Henry declined a request for comment. County leaders will vote on new maps this Friday.
Swanson said that the removal of preclearance has had an extreme effect on Galveston County’s redistricting process — along with the entire state of Texas.
“All around the state, there are problems cropping up with local jurisdictions not being able to pass maps that comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” Swanson said. “And it’s just going to be a mess after these maps are passed, because voting rights (activists) are going to have to go jurisdiction by jurisdiction and challenge these maps in court after the fact.”
This is not the first time in recent years that Galveston County has attempted to draw discriminatory maps. In 2011, the Republican majority on the county commissioners court engaged Geographic Strategies – the firm of Dale Oldham and his then-partner, the late Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller – to draw maps that would oust the two sitting Democratic commissioners.
“Part of the problem that the Justice Department found with the maps in 2011 was the process that they used to adopt the maps,” Swanson said. “They did not include Commissioner Holmes or the other Democratic commissioner in their deliberations. And they tried to include the Bolivar Peninsula into Commissioner Holmes’s district.”
As a result, the Obama Justice Department did not approve the maps. Instead, the department ordered the county to draw a coalition district for Commissioner Holmes so that African American and Latino residents — voting together — could have a representative of their choosing on the commissioners court.
The Justice Department simultaneously blocked a 2011 Galveston County proposal to reduce the number of justices of the peace from nine to five – also on the grounds that doing so would discriminate against communities of color and make it harder for those communities to elect candidates of their choice.
“Literally, right after the Shelby County v. Holder ruling, Hofeller’s firm again – it was Hofeller himself – was hired to come back, redraw those justice of the peace precincts, and they got away with it,” Swanson said.