A federal judge has struck down a new electoral map in Galveston county, Texas, in an excoriating ruling that berates the Republican commissioners for committing a “stark and jarring” violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Judge Jeffrey Brown of the southern district of Texas found that the redistricting map adopted by Galveston’s Republican commissioners in 2021 amounted to an “egregious” discrimination against the county’s Black and Latino residents. It diluted their votes and effectively erased the only district with a majority of Black and Latino people.
“This is not a typical redistricting case,” the judge wrote in his 157-page ruling. “What happened here was stark and jarring … The enacted plan denies Black and Latino voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect a candidate of their choice.”
Though the battle over the electoral map in Galveston related to a local fight involving the county’s 350,000 residents, it took on national prominence and was being very closely watched across the country. It was the first trial under section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting laws, since the US supreme court affirmed the provision in a critical ruling, Allen v Milligan, in June.
Edna Courville, a plaintiff in the redistricting case. Photograph: Michael Starghill Jr/The Guardian
The trial also marked the first opportunity for Galveston to redistrict the county since the supreme court abolished federal prior oversight of changes in electoral procedures – known as pre-clearance – in 2013. Similar efforts to dilute representation of Black and Latino people have swept across Republican-controlled states in recent months including in Georgia, Louisiana and Ohio.
Friday’s forcefully worded rebuttal to the Republican attempt at racial gerrymandering was greeted with relief and delight by Galveston county’s Black and Latino population. Edna Courville, one of the plaintiffs challenging the new map, said she was “speechless because of this win, which ensures that our community has a seat at the table”.
Westward Street near Carver Park in Texas City, Texas. Photograph: Michael Starghill Jr/The Guardian
Hilary Harris Klein, the senior counsel for voting rights with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the ruling would reverberate far beyond the region. “Galveston county’s discriminatory map is just one example of a tsunami of efforts to diminish the voting power of Black and brown voters in this redistricting cycle.”
“This case proves that voters will not sit idly by while politicians aim to diminish their power,” said Joaquin Gonzalez of the Texas Civil Rights Project.
The ruling orders the county to redraw its 2021 map by 20 October. The new boundaries will have to ensure that there is at least one district that is majority Black and Latino of the four that return representatives to the county’s controlling commissioners’ court.
The focus over the Galveston county battle was precinct 3, which since the 1980s has been majority Black and Latino. While three of the four precincts have tended to elect white and Republican commissioners, precinct 3 has historically returned African American and Democratic commissioners to the court.
The county commissioner, Stephen Holmes, at the Galveston county precinct 3 offices. Photograph: Michael Starghill Jr/The Guardian
At stake in the trial was whether the county would lose its only Black commissioner, who since 1999 has been Stephen Holmes. “This is a microcosm of what is happening right across the country,” Holmes told the Guardian before the ruling was issued.
Overall, Black and Latino residents make up almost 45% of the county’s population. During the trial, the federal court heard how the Republican commissioners had carried out a classic attempt at racial gerrymandering in their redrawing of precinct 3.
They split the Black and Latino population into the surrounding districts – a tactic known as “cracking”. Overnight, precinct 3 turned from having 58% of voters who were African American and Latino to having just 28%.
In his ruling, Brown was clear about what such a drastic shift entailed. “The circumstances and effect of the enacted plan were ‘mean-spirited’ and ‘egregious’,” he wrote, “given that there was absolutely no reason to make major changes to precinct 3.”