In a Community Fight, Galveston County Voters Combat Discriminatory Districts

Pink background with map of Texas and blue toned images of people protesting with Black Lives Matter signs and others that read "let the people vote", "no new jim crow", "politicians picking voters" and a call out box that reads "Galveston County, Texas."

Last year, in a small room in a government annex building in League City, Texas, residents of Galveston County and its historic Precinct 3 gathered for a County Commissioners Court meeting that would usher them into the national conversation about redistricting. 

Black, Brown and white neighbors congregated in a packed room to express their concerns, outrage and disappointment in the 2021 redistricting map for Galveston County’s legislative body. The map was drawn in a way that broke apart the only majority-minority district and demolished the historic neighborhood of color, Precinct 3. Three white, male Republican county commissioners sat facing the crowded room as one by one, people stood up to express their concerns. 

One of the last to speak was Stephen Holmes, who served on the Galveston County Commissioners Court for 22 years as the sole Black commissioner at that time. Precinct 3 was his district before it was split up, and he ignited the crowd with a battle cry, “I want you to know…we are not going to go quietly in the night,” he said, as cheers of solidarity erupted from the crowd. The fight against this map has always had the community, Galveston residents, as its heartbeat and driving force.  

From that day forward, Galveston residents made true on their promise and they did not go quietly. Shortly after the 2021 map was approved during that same Commissioners Court meeting, a cascade of lawsuits by the Department of Justice, civil rights groups and local community leaders were filed to stop the map from going into place and instead get a new, fair map. Among those filed lawsuits that were ultimately consolidated was one brought by the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), with our partners at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. 

We filed the lawsuit for the community — representing the Galveston League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Council 151 and the three Galveston-area branches of the NAACP. Galveston residents showed that they would not sit idly by while politicians aimed to diminish their power. At TCRP, we knew this would be a long fight, but we were committed to ensuring Galveston residents got a seat at the table of democracy. 

Efforts to racially gerrymander and dilute the votes of communities of color is not a new tactic — it has impacted Black and Brown people every election cycle for generations. Texas is no different, which is made all the more explicit given the diversity of the state. In 2021, the state drew maps where the majority of the new districts were made up of white voters, despite communities of color accounting for 95% of the state’s growth and accounting for 60% of the population, which is currently under challenge in LULAC v. Abbott

In Galveston alone, the county has sought to diminish the political power of its Black and Latino residents for decades. Only after the protections of federal preclearance were gutted from the Voting Rights Act (VRA) did they succeed in passing a map that did just that. The overturning of this key protection in 2013 opened communities across the nation to this same kind of attack on their electoral maps.  

The brave citizens in Galveston recognized the injustice that was thrust upon them and spoke out because they knew the power of their voices.

Last year, Black voters in Alabama took their fight against a discriminatory congressional map all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court — challenging racial vote dilution that concentrated Black Alabama residents into a single Black-majority district, despite the one million Black residents making up 26.8% of the state. Ultimately, the Supreme Court sided with Alabama voters and ruled that the state needed to redraw its map to add a second majority-Black congressional district for the 2024 election cycle. 

This was a crucial victory; the decision upheld what is left of the VRA, and showed that those in power will stop at nothing to implement racially discriminatory maps. While Alabama tried to slow the redrawing process, one thing remains clear: the fight against racially discriminatory maps is rooted in community.

This year in Georgia, we saw a similar fight for representation take place. Black residents were once again targeted by the redistricting process when lawmakers failed to draw new Black-opportunity districts in both legislative and congressional maps. Like Galveston and Alabama, the Georgia maps aimed to shut communities of color out of the democratic process, despite those residents making up a significant number of the population. Georgia voters also proved successful, garnering a ruling that held that the maps diluted the power of Black voters. 

At our own redistricting trial in Galveston County, the energy in the courtroom echoed what was felt in that small room in the government annex building in League City last year. Galveston residents of the historic Precinct 3, members of our plaintiff organizations and voting rights supporters filled the courtroom every day of the two-week trial. Their presence made good on the residents’ promise to not “go quietly.” They showed up, coming face-to-face with the people who tried to take away their right to have a say in local elections. Their investment in this case is a referendum on the efforts that tried to silence their votes. 

In October, Judge Jeffrey V. Brown of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas ruled in favor of the community’s claims, finding that Galveston County’s 2021 map violated the VRA. Black and Latino Galveston residents led this fight from the beginning through the successful ruling from the trial. Though litigation is ongoing due to the county’s appeals, Galveston residents have told us how hopeful the decision made them feel. They feel like their calls have finally been answered, that people are willing to fight for their community — alongside them — and that they aren’t alone in battling a system that doesn’t have their best interests at heart.

Since the Supreme Court weakened the VRA 10 years ago, its devastating 2013 ruling has allowed politicians to determine their voters and divide them along racial lines. Lawsuits like those in Alabama, Galveston County and Georgia should not be necessary to ensure redistricting maps represent the communities they serve. Voters should not have to beg for their inherent, fundamental right to be represented by their government — they deserve to have a say in the decisions that impact them. 

The brave citizens in Galveston recognized the injustice that was thrust upon them and spoke out because they knew the power of their voices. Our lawsuit in Galveston is a means of ensuring that they are able to retain that power. It is time for politicians to stop the endless battle of siloing communities of color in the redistricting process. Redistricting maps must reflect the communities they serve, or else they will face the outcome of voters refusing to “go quietly.”

Rochelle Garza is an attorney from the Rio Grande Valley currently serving as president of the Texas Civil Rights Project. She also serves as chair to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights where she will serve until 2028 and was the Democratic nominee for Texas attorney general in 2022.