A voting rights trial is underway now in Galveston County that could impact redistricting across Texas and beyond.
Following the 2020 census, Galveston’s Republican-led county government redrew its four commissioner precincts in a way that makes it less likely the lone Democrat commissioner, who is black, can be re-elected.
Favorable districts were drawn for the three Republicans, one of whom was replaced in 2022 by the county’s other black commissioner.
Three federal lawsuits filed in 2021 claimed county officials engaged in intentional racial discrimination, violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
The plaintiffs accuse the county of “cracking” non-white voters across all four districts to dilute minorities’ voting strength.
They say the county should have drawn a “coalition” district by grouping black and Hispanic voters into a single majority-minority district. The federal government forced the county to draw such a precinct during the 2011 redistricting process.
Galveston County says their new precinct map was drawn according to traditional districting principles, and did not consider race at all.
The county’s attorneys argue that the Voting Rights Act does not permit coalition districts, nor does it guarantee that Democrats will be elected.
The attorneys say the plaintiffs “seek to obtain from this Court what they could not obtain through the political process: a map designed to guarantee one Commissioners Court seat for the Democratic Party.”
They note that the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed partisan gerrymandering, but has not found that the VRA permits coalition districts that treat separate minority groups as a single cohesive minority voting bloc.
The Supreme Court has warned against conflating discrimination on the basis of party affiliation with discrimination on the basis of race. …
Defendants acknowledge that, since 1988, the Fifth Circuit has permitted VRA coalition claims; however, since that time other circuits have disagreed with the Fifth Circuit’s position, and the Supreme Court has not held that the VRA permits coalition claims.
A decision in favor of the county could result in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals aligning with other circuits. The Fifth Circuit hears cases from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Plaintiffs in the three lawsuits challenging the county’s redistricting map are the U.S. Department of Justice, local NAACP and LULAC chapters, and a group of current and former local office holders. The three suits were consolidated as Petteway v. Galveston County.
The trial for the consolidated case started Monday and is expected to last about two weeks.