Galveston County redistricting trial, a major test of Voting Rights Act, begins

The case is the first major trial since a Supreme Court ruling on a key clause of the act in June.

By Shelly BrisbinAugust 7, 2023 12:50 pm,

A major trial gets underway today in Galveston, one that’s been characterized as the first important test of the Voting Rights Act since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a key portion of the law in June.

The case centers around new maps redrawn by the county’s commissioners court that split the county’s nonwhite population across four districts, as opposed to having a district where that population is the majority. This has drawn accusations of racial gerrymandering.

The case has implications not only for Galveston County residents, but for Texas and the nation as a whole. Houston Public Media’s Andrew Schneider is covering the trial, and he joined Texas Standard to discuss. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Redistricting in Galveston County – what’s happened there that’s led to the trial that starts today?

Andrew Schneider: Well, in 2021, the Galveston County Commissioners Court, which is largely dominated by Republicans, redrew the map of their precincts for countywide elections.

The county itself is almost half Black and Latino, and up until then, one of the precincts had been drawn for several decades to allow an opportunity district for nonwhite residents to get representation on the county Commissioners Court. The county Republican commissioners redrew the map such that the Black and Latino population was split fairly evenly among the four county precincts, with the result that there was no single precinct in which they had a majority and could elect their own representative of choice.

A number of different organizations – locals civil rights groups, as well as the Biden Justice Department and a collection of current and former county officeholders – are suing, arguing that this is racial discrimination.

And specifically, what are they asking the court for? What do they want to happen? 

They want the maps redrawn such that there will be a similar opportunity district to what’s existed in previous years. Under the current maps, the one nonwhite Democratic county commissioner, a man by the name of Stephen Holmes, stands to lose his seat. The map has been completely redrawn such that his current district doesn’t resemble anything like his previous district. And they want something like the previous maps restored.

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The Supreme Court upheld partisan gerrymandering back in 2013, and it appears that this case will turn on whether the redrawing of districts was partisan, which, as the Supreme Court said, is permitted, or whether it’s actually racial gerrymandering. How do courts go about making that determination?

Well, it’s largely a matter of practice. The question in this case is whether one can be distinguishable from the other.

One of the changes that has taken place in the County Commissioners court since the maps were drawn was that a second nonwhite commissioner was first appointed and then elected. He’s a Republican, this man by the name of Robin Armstrong. And the county is likely to make the argument that this by itself is a demonstration that what they were looking at is partisan gerrymandering rather than racial gerrymandering.

Now, several of the people that I spoke with for my prior reporting basically argued that Mr. Armstrong doesn’t represent them, that he is not representative of their precinct, he’s not representative of the concerns that they have. And the fact that he himself is not white does not necessarily mean that represents their interests.

How long is this trial likely to last? Do we have a sense of how a verdict might affect the next scheduled county elections in Galveston?

My understanding is that the trial itself is supposed to last about 2 1/2 weeks. And the plaintiffs in the case are hoping that this will get decided far enough in advance that they will be able to get new maps in place if they win in time to allow Commissioner Holmes to run for re-election in 2024.

The Supreme Court recently upheld a portion of the Voting Rights Act back in June that was involving maps out of Alabama. What was the backstory there? 

The backstory there was that it was the Alabama courts or the Alabama Legislature had redrawn their congressional maps to reduce the number of congressional seats that would be opportunity districts for nonwhite voters. And a lot of the people that I spoke with in terms of the Galveston case basically said that the Alabama case, Allen vs. Milligan, provides a pretty close parallel to what’s going on in Galveston County. And it’s given them a great deal of hope that the judge in the case down here – or if it goes up on appeal, the Fifth Circuit – will ultimately decide the case their way.

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