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Black and Latino Voting Power Under Threat in Redistricting Case

A federal appeals court in Texas is considering whether to reverse a precedent allowing minority voter coalitions to jointly sue over racial discrimination.

As a Black girl growing up in Jim Crow-era Louisiana, Edna Courville watched as her parents were made to pay $2 in poll taxes and recite the preamble to the Constitution before casting a ballot. The racist tactics used to disenfranchise minority voters back then only made voting that much more part of Courville’s DNA by the time she turned 18. Now a grandmother in coastal Galveston County, Texas, Courville is part of a multiracial coalition of voters taking on a different, more surgical tool of racial discrimination: gerrymandering.

In the 2021 redistricting cycle, the white-dominated Commissioners Court, the county governing body, reconstructed its own district lines in a way that carved up the sole majority district for Black and Latino voters and scattered them across the other three. The result engineered white majorities in each of the four districts, effectively excluding minority voters from electing any candidate of their choice. The lone dissenting vote against the gerrymandered map came from Stephen Holmes, then the only minority commissioner on the court.

“They did a damn good job of destroying Precinct 3,” Courville said of her former district in an interview. “We don’t have representation.”

In response to the new district boundaries, Black and Latino voters, among them Courville, local civil rights groups including local chapters of the NAACP and LULAC, and the Department of Justice brought a challenge in federal court. The plaintiffs allege that the county map violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which is one of the most indispensable tools for protecting communities of color against discrimination.

The case currently sits before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Rather than weigh the merits of the map itself, that court is considering whether to adopt a new, narrow reading of the Voting Rights Act that would only allow claims of racial discrimination from voters of a single racial group. Such a ruling would shut the court’s doors to challenges like the one out of Courville’s district, where Black and Latino voters both suffered harm, and risk allowing the gerrymandered map to stand.

The debate in Galveston is about fair and equal representation, a fight that has been raging in this country for generations. It’s also about some of our country’s worst impulses that keep us far short of the promise of the Voting Rights Act, one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in our history.

Galveston County carries an unbending legacy of racial discrimination. It was once the home of the largest U.S. slave-trading port west of New Orleans. It is also the birthplace of Juneteenth, when the last enslaved people in one of the farthest corners of the former Confederacy learned of their freedom on June 19, 1865. On that day, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to inform enslaved Texans that “all slaves are free.” It is believed that he read aloud the order implementing the Emancipation Proclamation from the balcony of a local hotel, which declared “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves.”

Galveston’s complicated history also extends to the redistricting process. In both 1992 and in 2012, the Department of Justice intervened to stop the county from enacting maps that discriminated against minority communities under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to obtain approval of voting changes with the federal government, known as preclearance.

“People have died — given their life so that we can have the opportunity to have a right to vote and to vote for a candidate of our choice,” said Patricia Toliver, a Black plaintiff in the case who has lived in Galveston for 75 years, in an interview this month. “We won’t have that.”

“It’s time to speak up,” she continued.

“A seat at the table”

For nearly 30 years, the Black and Latino communities voted in solidarity as a majority in Precinct 3, electing cycle after cycle the sole Black commissioner to the Commissioners Court. Holmes, who has represented Precinct 3 since 1999 and reelected to four consecutive terms, is the second Black commissioner in the court’s history. The first, Wayne Johnson, won a seat on the court in 1988.

“The seat was created so we’d have a seat at the table,” said Lucille McGaskey, a plaintiff in the case who grew up in a Black military family and moved around the country before settling in Texas City, which sits on the southwestern shore of Galveston Bay. She has spent most of her life in Galveston County.

“This seat has been in existence for almost 30 plus years, so why all of a sudden is it not a viable seat,” she asked rhetorically.

Prior to the latest round of redistricting, Precinct 3 was nestled in the middle of Galveston County, stretching into Dickinson in the north and encompassing the central core of the barrier island in the south. Under these contours, Black and Latino voters together represented a majority of the precinct’s total population (58 percent). The new Precinct 3, which is now concentrated in the northern part of the county, diminished the share of Black and Latino voters to 28 percent. And in the other three districts under the new map, the Black and Latino segment of the population is no greater than 35 percent.

Back in October 2023, a Trump-appointed trial court judge sided with the plaintiffs, finding that the new map denied Black and Latino voters in the community equal voting rights. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Vincent Brown characterized the “mean-spirited” redistricting plan as an “obliteration” of Precinct 3. That decision was conditionally affirmed by a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in November, which urged the full Fifth Circuit to review the case to reconsider its precedent allowing multiracial coalitions to bring challenges under the Voting Rights Act. The full Fifth Circuit, with all of its judges sitting, heard arguments last month.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the Brennan Center, along with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, wrote that the crux of this case “does not hinge on whether minority voters in a class share an identity, but whether a cohesive minority group has been denied voting rights on account of race.” Prohibiting coalitional claims would effectively narrow Section 2 and further weaken the Voting Rights Act, which has been under assault in recent decades by the Supreme Court.

“When they say we’re different, what are we different about? We have the same interests. We work together,” McGaskey said, pushing back against the argument that differences in racial identity disqualify the case.

Minority voters in Galveston County see their “intertwined” community, as Courville put it, under siege, leaving them all — Black and Latino — without the representation of their choice.

For Robert Quintero, a Hispanic native of Galveston, the impact of losing Holmes as commissioner meant that his community would lose “a representative that is reflective of our community,” he testified at trial in August. Quintero described Holmes as “somebody that relates to our plights, our fights, and our struggles.”

“Why do they want to take it away from us? We have a voting precinct there that ensures that we will have a minority representative on Commissioners Court, and it was pretty much . . . being taken away from us,” he told the court.

A broader fight over minority political power

The egregious dissection of Precinct 3 is part of the broader story of America’s changing face — and the staunch resistance to such progress. In the last few decades, communities of color have been increasingly responsible for driving population growth across the country. But the diversification of our country — and our democracy — has been met with racially motivated vote dilution, discrimination, and systematic exclusion from voting and representation.

Aggressive tactics that aim to diminish the growing political might of communities of color, some with surgical precision, are not new. But they’ve been unleashed and much more difficult to challenge since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which effectively eliminated the preclearance protections in the Voting Rights Act.

These efforts have been further reinforced by the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to see racial discrimination in its most obvious forms. Last month, the high court’s conservative supermajority allowed a gerrymandered congressional map in South Carolina to stand, the same map a lower court ruled was racially discriminatory for “bleaching” Black voters from the region. In Alexander v. South Carolina NAACP, the Court sided with Republican lawmakers who claimed that their motivations in drawing the district lines were partisan, rather than based on unconstitutional racial discrimination.

In Galveston, a site that bears particular significance to the ongoing struggle for racial equality, Black and Latino communities are being drawn out of power for decades to come. The idea of eliminating a majority-minority precinct in the same region where Juneteenth, the storied holiday celebrating the formal end of slavery and the resilience of Black Americans, is particularly jarring.

Asked about the significance of Juneteenth ahead of this year’s anniversary, McGaskey spoke directly to the Commissioners Court: “We don’t have to talk about slavery, we can just talk about the injustices that are taking place today.”