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Texas trial to be first major test of Voting Rights Act since Supreme Court decision

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next month, a federal trial in southeastern Texas will be the first serious test of the Voting Rights Act since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a key portion of it in June. This is a redistricting case in Galveston County, and people who draw local election maps elsewhere will be watching. Houston Public Media's Andrew Schneider reports.

ANDREW SCHNEIDER, BYLINE: Texas counties are each made up of four voting districts known as precincts. In 2021, the Republican-led Galveston County Commissioners Court redrew its map to eliminate the sole precinct represented by a nonwhite Democrat. Lucille McGaskey is a longtime community activist based in Texas City.

LUCILLE MCGASKEY: The original Precinct 3 has been carved into four different precincts, and I thought, basically, that it was illegal for you to do that, to break it up like that because you took away our voting strength.

SCHNEIDER: It's a practice known as cracking. One of the county's four precincts used to be made up of a majority of Black and Latino residents. But under the new map, that's no longer the case. That's even though Galveston County is nearly half Black and Latino. Retired attorney Anthony P. Griffin spent nearly three decades bringing voting rights cases against the city and county of Galveston. He says the redistricting was a step backwards.

ANTHONY P GRIFFIN: It's been sad to watch how Texas has done everything it can to exclude people. And voting has been one of those primary mechanisms by which control has been asserted.

SCHNEIDER: The new map means incumbent Democratic Commissioner Stephen Holmes, who is Black, is very likely to lose his seat when he runs for reelection next year. The GOP majority had good reason to think they'd be able to make that map stick. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the section of the Voting Rights Act that required many Southern states to get permission from the federal government before changing their election laws in a decision known as Shelby County v. Holder.

VALENCIA RICHARDSON: Galveston County was actually one of the first local jurisdictions to attempt to enact a discriminatory map after Shelby County came down in 2013.

SCHNEIDER: That's Valencia Richardson, an attorney representing current and former county officeholders. Two other cases challenging the new map, including one filed by the Biden administration, have been consolidated with hers. Richardson says the June Supreme Court decision known as Allen v. Milligan gives her confidence.

RICHARDSON: Milligan affirmed the last 40 years of legal precedent is correct and that it should be applied.

SCHNEIDER: That decision held that the state of Alabama violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by racially discriminating when redrawing its congressional maps. Just because local jurisdictions no longer need federal permission to redraw maps, the justices ruled, doesn't mean they can discriminate. Alabama is holding a special legislative session to consider a new voting map. Sarah Xiyi Chen is a lawyer representing civil rights groups in the Galveston case.

SARAH XIYI CHEN: Galveston County is not the only place where people do not have the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice in their local government. We're talking about school boards, city councils, county commissioners, to the daily lives of Texans and people across the country.

SCHNEIDER: None of the more than half a dozen lawyers representing Galveston County would comment on the ongoing litigation. But their public filings argued the new map reflects partisan gerrymandering, which the Supreme Court has allowed, and not racial gerrymandering.

CHARLES RHODES: They're going to have a hard defense after the Allen v. Milligan case, I think.

SCHNEIDER: Charles "Rocky" Rhodes teaches constitutional law at South Texas College of Law Houston.

RHODES: I think they were really hoping that the Supreme Court was going to cut back on the protections of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and the Supreme Court rejected some of the defenses that I think that they would otherwise have used.

SCHNEIDER: Local governments will be closely watching this case, which begins August 7, as it could have profound implications across the country. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Schneider in Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIE NELSON'S "MATADOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Schneider | Houston Public Media
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