Galveston County voting rights trial begins with details of alleged racial discrimination

Attorneys for the plaintiffs charged the Republican majority on the Galveston County Commissioners Court with intentional racial discrimination in redistricting.


Andrew Schneider/Houston Public Media
Federal Courthouse in Galveston.

A trio of federal voting rights lawsuits is underway in Galveston. The combined case is the first major trial of its kind since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a key clause of the Voting Rights Act in June.

The three lawsuits charge Galveston County with racial discrimination, violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. One has been brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, a second by a group of local NAACP and LULAC chapters, and a third by a group of current and former local office holders. The three cases have been combined under the umbrella of this final lawsuit as Petteway v. Galveston County.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs charged the Republican majority on the Galveston County Commissioners Court with intentional racial discrimination in redistricting, in violation of both Section 2 of the Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They said that, in 2021, the commissioners dismantled Precinct 3, the sole opportunity precinct for Black and Latino voting age residents, even though the county’s population of Black and Latino residents had actually increased from the previous census (2010) and the county’s white population had decreased over that time frame.

Galveston County is nearly half Black and Latino. One of the county's four precincts used to be made up of a majority of Black and Latino residents. In 2021, the Republican-led county commissioners court redrew its map to split the non-white population across all four precincts, so that it does not comprise a majority anywhere. County Commissioner Stephen Holmes, who is Black and a Democrat, is far more likely to lose his reelection bid next year if the map is allowed to stand.

The attorneys said that Holmes – who was the county’s sole non-white commissioner at the time of redistricting – had been deliberately excluded from the process of developing the new maps. They cited a pattern of prior racial discrimination in redistricting, noting a similar effort to eliminate the sole non-white opportunity precinct in 2011 — an effort that was blocked by the US Justice Department under the still-active preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. And they said that the 2021 redistricting process was carried out on extremely short notice, in a location that was inconvenient for most residents who had in interest in testifying to attend.

Attorneys outlined how Galveston County residents would testify to “lived experiences of racial discrimination in the county.” They also argued that the county’s claims that the redistricting was necessary to create a single coastal precinct was disingenuous, noting that it could not justify the cracking of the Black and Latino voting populations on the mainland portion of Galveston County.

An attorney representing Galveston County disputed the plaintiffs’ claims that Commissioner Holmes had not been consulted as part of the efforts to redraw the maps. He said that county was placed under extreme pressure to complete its maps due to COVID-related delays in the 2020 census process, followed by orders by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office for the county commissioners to wrap up their work and approve the new maps. The county’s lawyer also disputed that the maps were racially discriminatory, but that rather they were designed to benefit Republicans — he noted that partisan gerrymandering is legal, according to a recent US Supreme Court decision. The county’s attorney further argued that the Voting Rights Act does not allow racial coalitions of interest in designing voting districts. He noted that Black residents accounted for only 12% of the county’s population, while the Hispanic population of the county was too widespread to allow for concentration in a single precinct.

Constable Derrick Rose was the first witness. Rose is one of the individual plaintiffs in Petteway v. Galveston County, and is African American and a Democrat. He testified that he believed the 2021 redistricting map was racially discriminatory. He said the Calder Drive Annex in League City, where the redistricting meeting was held, was too small for the purposes of the meeting, and he only received word of the meeting the week it took place. He said the main room filled up very quickly, that the meeting started with an overt threat from Judge Mark Henry to clear the room, and that there were no microphones for those seeking to speak on the maps. Testimony at the meeting was overwhelmingly opposed to the new map. Nevertheless, Rose said, the body language of the Republican commissioners indicated they were not listening and had already made up their minds to vote in favor of the map. Rose also testified to numerous instances of racial discrimination in policing in Galveston City and Galveston County.

Cross examination of Rose focused on various inconsistencies between Rose’s testimony and his prior deposition. Rose did not depart from his direct testimony under cross examination.

Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew Schneider is the senior reporter for politics and government at Houston Public Media, NPR's affiliate station in Houston, Texas. In this capacity, he heads the station's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments...

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