It was a scene that brought to mind the disenfranchisement of Black voters in the Jim Crow South.
For 22 years, Stephen Holmes has been the lone Black and minority county commissioner in Galveston County, Texas, a coastal area south of Houston. But under new redistricting maps adopted by the GOP-controlled commission on November 12, over the vocal objections of Democrats and African-Americans who attended the only public hearing on the matter, every commission seat will likely be held by white Republicans as part of a bid by the local GOP to “Keep Galveston County Red.” This will deprive communities of color of any political representation at the highest levels of local government in a county that is 45 percent non-white.
What’s happening in Galveston isn’t an aberration, but part of a troubling trend that is playing out throughout Texas—and across the South—in which Republicans at all levels of state government are going to increasingly extreme lengths to preserve white GOP power by diluting the votes of communities of color in new maps drawn for the US House, state legislative seats, and local offices like county commission and city council districts.
“We are not going to go quietly in the night,” an outraged Holmes said at the meeting in League City, Texas. “We are going to rage, rage, rage, until justice is done to us.”
galveston county commissioners vote 3-1 to approve the county redistricting maps, with commissioner stephen holmes (vehemently) voting no here >> pic.twitter.com/zggIBUX8nA
— Jen Rice (@jen_rice_) November 12, 2021
For more than two decades Holmes has represented a district running through the center of Galveston County where Blacks and Hispanics comprise a majority of eligible voters. But under the new maps approved by three white, male GOP county commissioners, voters of color would make up just 26 percent of eligible voters in Holmes’ new district, reducing the minority vote by a staggering 28 points and likely dooming his re-election chances in 2024.
Such a move would have been unthinkable and illegal before the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, ruling that states like Texas and jurisdictions like Galveston County with a long history of discrimination no longer needed to approve voting changes and electoral boundaries with the federal government. As a result of that decision—and the failure by Democrats to overcome four GOP filibusters in order to pass federal legislation protecting voting rights and outlawing extreme gerrymandering, such as the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—Republicans are erasing decades of long-fought gains for voters of color, returning parts of the South to a pre-1965 status quo where conservative whites have effectively denied political representation to previously disenfranchised communities of color and are preventing major demographic changes from leading to shifts in political power.
At the state level in Texas, 95 percent of demographic change over the past decade has come from communities of color but this fall Republicans passed maps for the state legislature and US House that increase the number of districts where whites make up a majority of eligible voters and decrease the number of district where communities of color make up a majority of eligible voters.
In North Carolina, Republicans adopted new redistricting maps that could eliminate the seats of one-third of Black state senators, one-fifth of Black state representatives, and one of two Black members of Congress from the state.
In Georgia, 100 percent of the state’s population growth came from communities of color, but white Republicans will likely remain in the majority for the next decade under new redistricting maps and voters of color will have less representation than before after the GOP targeted the suburban Atlanta district of Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath.
“It tells us that many of the same problems that existed before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are still there,” Holmes told me. “Nothing has changed. You can’t trust certain places or people to do what’s right. You’ve got to watch them, hold their hand, and when they don’t do what’s right you’ve got to slap their hand down and push back on them. If you don’t, they’ll reverse the clock and turn it all the way back.”
Some of the GOP’s top mapmakers are behind the strategy to eliminate representation for communities of color. In 2011, Galveston County hired the firm run by GOP gerrymandering guru Thomas Hofeller to redraw districts for the county commission, justices of the peace, and constable offices. Hofeller practically invented modern gerrymandering and was well-known for drawing maps that aggressively helped Republicans.
Along with his partner Dale Oldham, Hofeller drew congressional districts in North Carolina that were struck down by the courts for racial and partisan gerrymandering. He also urged the Trump administration to add a question about US citizenship to the 2020 census so that the GOP could draw legislative districts that “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites,” he wrote.
The districts Hofeller drew in Galveston were blocked in 2012 by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act for reducing representation for communities of color. But two months after the Supreme Court’s decision gutting the VRA in June 2013, Galveston enacted the justice of the peace and constable districts that were previously deemed discriminatory, becoming one of the first jurisdictions in the country to target communities of color following the Court’s decision.
Hofeller passed away in 2018, but Galveston County hired Oldham to draw its commissioner districts in 2021. Holmes said he had “minimal interaction” with Oldham, but when they first spoke Oldham asked Holmes to draw the map he wanted for his district, which Holmes thought was odd because Oldham, not Holmes, was the mapmaker. Holmes sent Oldham a rough map of the district he wanted, but when Oldham traveled to Galveston to meet with the commissioners the maps he showed Holmes looked nothing like the one he suggested. “You didn’t draw the map I asked you to draw,” Holmes said he told Oldham. One map diluted the minority vote in Holmes’ district by adding a predominantly white area along the Gulf Coast, while another completely dismantled his district by taking away Galveston and other diverse, Democratic-leaning areas and concentrating his precinct in the heavily Republican and overwhelmingly white northern parts of the county.
Holmes objected to both maps, but when he talked to Oldham next over Zoom, “he showed me the same damn maps again,” Holmes said.
Two weeks after the maps were made public, the GOP commissioners voted to approve the map that dismantled Holmes’ district. “What we’re doing today takes us back many, many years,” he told his Republican colleagues. But he was powerless to stop it.
On June 19, 1865, Union Army General Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston to issue a proclamation freeing the slaves in Texas, a day that is now commemorated as Juneteenth.
Galveston’s Black residents, who packed the county commission meeting last Friday to oppose the new redistricting plan, are keenly aware of this history: slavery followed by emancipation, Reconstruction followed by Jim Crow, the gains of the Voting Rights Act followed by a white backlash to preserve GOP power.
In a tiny room at the county annex building in League City, where the commissioners held the hearing instead of at the more spacious county courthouse in Galveston, Black residents rose one by one to oppose the dismantling of Holmes’ district.
a packed room in galveston county today with residents like edna courville testifying on proposed redistricting maps calling GOP county commissioners "as selfish as they come" >> pic.twitter.com/4UEfofNvgu
— Jen Rice (@jen_rice_) November 12, 2021
Edna Courville called it “a destruction of the community where I have lived for 50 years.”
“The only reason this is being done is because of his skin color,” said Pastor Jerry Lee of the Greater Bell Zion Missionary Baptist Church.
“These proposed maps are a clear and concise representation of gerrymandering,” said Lucretia Henderson-Lofton, president of the local NAACP chapter. “It is evident this is an attempt to dilute the minority vote [and] eradicate the lone representation of political diversity.”
Perhaps the most affecting speaker was 91-year-old Rev. D.N. Benford, senior pastor of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church. He can barely walk anymore, but he slowly made it to the county commission meeting with the help of a cane. He came to Galveston in 1950, when few Blacks had the right to vote. “When I came here, we had no rights,” he told the commissioners. He was too old to stand, but pounded his fist on a desk next to where Holmes sat for emphasis.
After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, local offices in Galveston County were elected countywide and no Black candidate could win because the white majority refused to vote for them. So Benford helped lead the fight for a district where a Black candidate could get elected, which led to Wayne Johnson becoming the first Black county commissioner in 1988, followed by Holmes, a graduate of Rice University and former county prosecutor, in 1999. “That’s why they drew those lines,” Benford said, “so Black folks could elect some people.”
He appealed to the white GOP commissioners—who had recently decided to spend $6.6 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds on a border wall 350 miles away—to preserve those civil-rights gains. “We have every right to enjoy what you enjoy, to do what you do,” he said. “Our blood is as red as yours. I’m asking you men—be men. Be men. Do unto others as you would have them likewise do unto you.”
Thirty-five people testified against the redistricting maps and only two testified in favor of them. Despite the unanimous opposition of the county’s Black community, the maps were approved on a party-line vote. Holmes told me he was “fairly certain” litigation would be filed challenging them.
Redistricting is often portrayed as a political battle favoring one party over the other. But what’s occurring in the South right now is not just the normal course of politics. The Republican Party is taking a fast-changing region back in time to preserve white GOP power, resurfacing painful memories of segregation and disenfranchisement for Black voters who’ve spent decades trying to get beyond it.
“This is not just lines,” Holmes said at the commission meeting. “This is not just an election. This is people’s lives. They fought for this for years. And with a stroke of a pen you’re going to take it away.”
And if Democrats can’t find a way to overcome repeated Republican filibusters in order to pass federal legislation protecting voting rights, they won’t just find themselves out of power—through their inaction they’ll be complicit in allowing the greatest rollback of voting rights and loss of representation for voters of color since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.