Dozens of residents crowded into a small county annex building Friday afternoon to urge, beg, lecture and warn commissioners against approving new precinct maps that dissenters called unfair, undemocratic and potentially illegal.
The protest, mostly by county Democrats and Black residents, culminated with a speech by Commissioner Stephen Holmes, the only Democrat and only minority member of the court, who said the maps would put people of his precinct at an electoral disadvantage.
“It’s about the people of Precinct 3 being able to pick the candidate of their choice,” Holmes said. “It’s not just an election, this is their life. They fought this for years.”
Holmes told the court the maps were drawn with a “discriminatory purpose” and presented his own versions of new precincts that would maintain the status quo in the county.
“We are not going to go quietly into the night,” Holmes said. “We are going to rage, rage, rage until justice is done.”
A majority of the court wasn’t moved by the outpouring of opposition, however.
Commissioners voted 3-1 to approve a precinct map that changes the balance of political power in the county. The map redraws political lines to give Republican voters a majority in each of four precincts.
Holmes’ Precinct 3 now contains a majority of Democratic voters based on results of recent partisan elections. The other three precincts already contained mostly Republican voters.
County Judge Mark Henry and commissioners Darrell Apffel and Joe Giusti voted in favor of the map. Holmes voted against it. Commissioner Ken Clark was absent. In a text, Clark said he was out of town because of a pre-planned family trip.
WHAT IT DOES
The county was compelled to draw new precinct lines to make population adjustments based on the 2020 census. Commissioners are required by law to have roughly equal-sized precincts by population.
Commissioners gave themselves an option to vote on two maps designed by a Republican Party strategist hired earlier this year. One map made minimal changes to precinct lines that mostly maintained the status quo. The second, the one approved Friday, makes extensive change.
The approved map doesn’t just change the party makeup of the county’s precincts. It also changes their racial makeup.
By the county’s own analysis, the new map would divide minority populations so that every precinct is mostly made up of white voters.
Holmes is Black, and his precinct is the only one where a majority of voters are Black or Hispanic.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Precinct 3 was designed to be a minority-majority district by a federal court order in 2011 when a Republican-majority commissioners court tried, and failed, to redraw in a similar way.
Holmes, appointed in 1999, has long represented parts of La Marque, Texas City, Galveston and Dickinson. Under the new map, Holmes retains parts of Dickinson, but his precinct was redrawn to include parts of League City and Friendswood, where voters are generally white and Republican.
Since 2011, Supreme Court rulings have weakened the federal oversight that had prevented the same dividing of minority voters. Some county officials have said they believed the approved map is legal and will withstand a legal challenge.
Holmes, however, urged people at the meeting to call the U.S Department of Justice directly to complain about the map in the hopes of prompting the federal government to intervene.
He didn’t deny a lawsuit could be filed over the map.
“We’ll see,” Holmes said. “I’ll huddle with some members of the community and leaders in Precinct 3 and we’ll see what’s next.”
A TWO-WEEK ROLLOUT
The maps were released to the public two weeks ago and posted on the county’s website. Friday was the first and only public meeting about the redistricting proposal, which officials said needed to be approved before Saturday under a state-imposed deadline.
The county never posted supplemental information about the demographic changes proposed in the maps.
Heidi Gordon, president of the Texas Democratic Women of Galveston County, described information that was posted as a “cartoon map.”
“Had they had a little more transparency in the process, instead of passing it at the 11th hour, we could have known how many people were in each district and what the communities of interest were,” Gordon said. “They gave us no details.”
Other people who attended Friday’s meeting criticized its location and accessibility.
The meeting was held in the county’s League City annex building, instead of in the county courthouse in Galveston, which is the county seat. Areas around the annex building are a construction zone for an ongoing expansion project, and some parking spaces around the building have been fenced off.
The League City meeting room is less than half the size of the one in Galveston. The crowd that showed up to Friday’s meeting filled the room and spilled out into the hallway.
The county didn’t set up an overflow room to watch the meeting. The courtroom didn’t have microphones, and Henry began the meeting by threatening to clear the room of people who complained they couldn’t hear him.
People sitting in the hallway watched the meeting on their smartphones, despite the fact it was going on just feet away.
More than 40 people spoke during the meeting, a vast majority of them asking commissioners to reject the maps and start the process anew.
Apffel said he voted for the map because Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula should have a single representative. Three commissioners now represent parts of Galveston and the peninsula.
“It was the right map the judge proposed for the Gulf Coast District,” Apffel said. “It makes sense. The issues that the Gulf Coast faces are similar. So having one representative makes sense.”
Giusti and Henry have expressed similar sentiments about the approved map.
Apffel said he didn’t spend much time before Friday’s meeting analyzing data about the changes the map made to the racial makeup of precincts.
“I saw it, but just for a second,” Apffel said.
Political groups in the county had urged their supporters to chime in on the maps, resulting in feedback that was less one-sided than the public comments at Friday’s meeting.
The Galveston County Republican Party launched a text message asking residents to submit written comments in favor of Map 2.
The map would “Keep Galveston County Red,” the text message said. Democratic groups followed suit and started their own texting campaign, urging people to attend the meeting and speak out against the map.
Ultimately, the county received 455 written comments. Of them, 211 supported the map commissioners approved and 66 supported a different proposal with less drastic changes. The other 178 didn’t support either option, officials said.