The Department of Justice alleges Republican officials in Galveston County violated the Voting Rights Act during last year’s redistricting process, when they carved up their Commissioners Court precincts into four majority white districts.
Jasper Scherer covers Texas politics for the Houston Chronicle’s Austin bureau. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: What did the DOJ find problematic with Galveston County’s redistricting map?
Jasper Scherer: Their lawsuit focuses specifically on one of the four commissioners court precincts that is represented by a long-time commissioner named Stephen Holmes. He’s the sole minority member of the court, and he’s also the only Democrat. The lawsuit is alleging that when the four Republicans on the court redistricted the precincts, they essentially dismantled Holmes’s precinct, sort of uprooting it from these areas that he had represented for decades now, specifically shifting the precinct into areas like Friendswood and League City that are largely comprised of white and Republican voters, and getting rid of a lot of the area that was more in the center of Galveston County, that was made up of a majority of Black and Hispanic voters.
What does Galveston County have to say in defense of its maps?
They didn’t respond for our article yesterday. But one kind of interesting question this raises is whether the Voting Rights Act, with its protections against racial discrimination in political maps, actually protects districts where multiple racial or ethnic minorities form a majority –that’s the case here. It’s black and Hispanic voters combined to form a majority.
I know that the Department of Justice has been taking on the entire state in court over its most recent redistricting process, and I’m curious as to how this fits in to those efforts – this being a separate lawsuit brought against Galveston Count?
It’s separate from the one filed a few months ago, also by the DOJ, challenging the statewide maps. So that’s the congressional and state House districts. And it’s, on the other hand, similar because in both cases, they’re alleging racial discrimination of some sort. But this is obviously on a local level.
I know that there have been redistricting controversies in states across the nation, in particular in Republican-led states during this past redistricting cycle. Is there any reason to think that the DOJ is taking special note of what’s happening in Texas right now?
I haven’t been following quite as closely, whether they’re filing the same volume of lawsuits in other Republican-led states. But we do know that Texas does have this history that makes it a target for the DOJ. They’ve been a target of the DOJ in previous redistricting cycles. And it’s also worth noting that in those prior cycles, the Justice Department was able to use what’s called preclearance – a provision of the Voting Rights Act that essentially gave the federal government oversight over the maps for states like Texas that had a history of passing racially-discriminatory districts. That power no longer exists. It was stripped by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. So that’s really the key difference and the reason we’re seeing a lawsuit being filed here instead of the DOJ unilaterally stepping in to strike down the maps.