Quran taken from Texas Capitol chapel recovered by state police — and they aren’t saying who removed it

At the start of the holy month of Ramadan — as Muslims across the state began their observance — state Rep. Salman Bhojani learned the state Capitol Chapel lacked a Quran.

The Euless Democrat, one of just two Muslim members of the Texas Legislature, reached for his own family’s Quran so Muslims visiting the Capitol would have a place to pray. On March 23, he placed his copy of the religious text, bound in a maroon cover with gold detailing, in the small sanctuary on the Capitol’s fourth floor.

But less than a week later, the Quran disappeared.

Following an investigation by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which is responsible for Capitol security, the person who took the Quran has been located and is cooperating to get Bhojani’s personal copy returned to him. The identity of that person and their motivation for removing it from the chapel remains unknown.

“I am pleased and relieved that my family Qur’an has been located and there will soon be a Qur'an available for use again in the Capitol Chapel,” Bhojani said in a statement Tuesday. “The Chapel is a safe space for all Texans to practice their faith traditions and I’m honored that our Muslim brothers and sisters have a place to pray and reflect, especially during this holy month of Ramadan.”

DPS did not respond to a request for comment. While Bhojani will soon have his family’s Quran back, the state has since placed its own copy in the chapel for public use.

The chapel in the state Capitol is easy to miss, tucked at the end of a quiet hallway.

The small room is lined by wooden benches surrounding a small table and a lone prayer kneeler facing a bouquet of artificial sunflowers and hydrangeas. Last week, just two bibles rested on the table. A guest book lay nearby, recording visits from Texans from San Antonio and the town of Blessing but also from as far as Mumbai, India.

By the door, a framed plaque with the name of state Rep. Will Metcalf, who chairs the House’s committee on administration, welcomes visitors to the space.

“Trusting that those who seek shall find, may this sanctuary be used to renew your spirit, restore your faith, relieve your burdens, and replenish your peace,” it reads.

Bhojani first learned there was no Quran in the chapel from Woori Juntos, a community group from Houston that’s advocating at the Legislature for increased language access to state health services among other issues.

“We just noticed a gap and wondered ‘that seems like an easy fix’,” said Sarah Syed, the group’s senior community organizer.

Bhojani moved quickly to add his family’s copy to the Chapel and later posted about it on Twitter on March 28.

“As Muslims across Texas observe the Holy month of Ramadan, we wanted to ensure they had a place to pray–so I added my family Qur’an,” Bhojani wrote. “It's a small step towards progress, but I'm proud to have been a part of it.”

The Quran was already gone when the staff of Woori Juntos visited the chapel the following morning.

A freshman lawmaker, Bhojani was sworn in to the Texas House following his November victory to represent House District 92 in Tarrant County. Along with Suleman Lalani, who won election to House District 76 in Fort Bend County, they became the first two Muslims — and the first South Asians — to serve in the Legislature.

Bhojani is not new to public service, though, serving as a member of the Euless City Council for three years. He was the first person of color elected to the council. A lawyer by trade, Bhojani came to Texas from Pakistan with his family when he was a teenager.

The Texas Legislature has not always been a welcoming place to Muslims. Back in 2007, when the Senate’s daily invocation was delivered for the first time by a Muslim cleric, then-state senator Dan Patrick boycotted the prayer. Patrick now presides over the chamber as the lieutenant governor of the state.

“I think that it’s important that we are tolerant as a people of all faiths, but that doesn’t mean we have to endorse all faiths, and that was my decision,” Patrick said after the prayer. “I didn’t want my attendance on the floor to appear that I was endorsing that.”

More recently, the annual Texas Muslim Capitol Day — a day on which Muslim Texans come to the Capitol to learn about state government and speak with their representatives — has been met with protest from inside and outside the building. In 2015, protesters interrupted a press conference at the start of Texas Muslim Capitol Day. One yanked the microphone from an event organizer. Others yelled as attendees, including many children, sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” Meanwhile, former state Rep. Molly White, R-Belton, left instructions for her staff to ask Muslim visitors to her office on that day to declare allegiance to the United States.

Two years later, more than a thousand supporters formed a human shield around Muslim visitors to protect them from protesters. On the 20th anniversary of the event, Texas Muslim Capitol Day was celebrated again this year without interruptions with Bhojani and Lalani, as well as other legislators, in attendance.

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Republican loser wants Texas House to void results of his race

A losing Republican candidate for the Texas House of Representatives is challenging his defeat and asking the Legislature to void the results of the election.

Republican Mike May this week filed what’s known as an election contest with the Texas secretary of state’s office, citing reports of scattered paper ballot shortages at “numerous” polling places on Election Day. May lost to incumbent Democrat Jon Rosenthal by more than 6,000 votes in his bid to represent House District 135 in the Houston area.

The secretary of state’s office on Tuesday delivered May’s petition to House Speaker Dade Phelan, who can refer the contest to a committee for investigation and appoint another member of the House as a “master” to oversee discovery and evidence related to the contested election. If they side with May and void the results, another election would be required to decide the district’s representative. The House can also toss the contest by declaring it “frivolous.”

Election Day issues once again pushed Harris County’s election officials back under scrutiny, including from the state’s Republican leadership. Voting in Harris County was extended by court order for an extra hour after about a dozen polling places were delayed in opening. The county’s elections administrator Clifford Tatum has also acknowledged issues with insufficient paper ballots at some polling places, though he said election staff was dispatched to deliver additional ballots.

The fumbles prompted a lawsuit by the Harris County GOP, which alleged voters were disenfranchised by the paper shortages. The Harris County district attorney has since launched an investigation into allegations of “irregularities.” The Texas Election Code includes criminal penalties for various violations, including illegal voting, the unsolicited distribution of mail-in ballot applications by local election officials and the failure to distribute election supplies.

In his petition, May argued the results of the election were not the “true outcome” because election officials “prevented eligible voters from voting.” May did not immediately return a request for comment.

On Friday, Rosenthal’s camp framed May’s election contest as part of a national trend to “deny the outcome of an election when you lose.”

“This race demonstrated one of the largest percentage point differences in Harris County, it wasn’t even close,” Rosenthal’s campaign manager, Bailey Stober, said in a statement. “The opposition presented himself and his positions and was rejected by voters overwhelmingly. That is how democracy works.”

The statement came soon after Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee criticized the contest as an effort to “call into question the 2022 election in Harris County and lay the groundwork to force a redo.”

It’s unclear how Phelan will handle the contest. His office declined to comment Friday. But Menefee said he was hopeful that Phelan would throw out the challenge.

“And I trust that he will ensure a fair process before impartial legislators, without interference from the state leaders and other elected officials who have a history of making baseless claims against Harris County elections,” Menefee said.

The House took on a similar exercise in 2011 following a challenge by Travis County Republican Dan Neil, who, after a recount, lost to state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, by 12 votes. The House eventually upheld Howard’s win. She remains in the Texas Legislature.

Up till then, the Legislature had seen 113 election contests since 1846, according to the Texas Legislative Council, an in-house legal and research arm of the Texas Legislature. The losing party, however, had not managed to turn the outcome of the election at least in the last 30 years. In the one case in which the House ordered a new election in 1981, the winner of the initial contest was again elected.

Harris County, the state’s largest, has in recent years been ground zero for partisan battles over election administration. Since losing control of the county, Republicans have regularly challenged new voting initiatives like the creation of countywide voting that allows voters to cast ballots at any polling place on Election Day as well as the county’s creation of an elections administrators office.

The county also drew the ire of state Republicans who, in sweeping legislation passed in 2021, banned initiatives it championed in the first major election during the pandemic — 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting. The county said those voting methods were disproportionately used by voters of color.

Harris County will already be the subject of a full post-election audit by the state. The secretary of state’s office previously selected the county for review as part of a new audit process put in place by the Republican legislation.

Disclosure: Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/12/02/texas-house-election-challenge/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Republicans rebounded in some suburban Texas counties that had been drifting blue

For two election cycles, Texas Republicans felt the blue waves lapping at the edges of suburban counties that had long been GOP strongholds.

The winning margins for Republicans began to narrow in 2016 when former President Donald Trump was elected. In 2018, counties that hadn’t voted for a Democrat in decades turned out for Beto O’Rourke in his unsuccessful bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. The El Paso Democrat also forced Cruz into single-digit wins in ruby red Republican counties.

In the presidential race two years later, Joe Biden held on to the counties that flipped, though his winning margin was slightly narrower, and the Republican lead shrunk even in red counties that remained in the GOP’s column.

But by the end of Election Day this time, the blue political waters had receded. In the first contest without Trump on the ballot or in office, Gov. Greg Abbott’s performance against O’Rourke stalled Democratic momentum in some of the suburbs — even if the GOP has yet to match its pre-Trump levels of support.

Fast-growing Central Texas suburbs politically split

Growing communities north and south of Austin were once reliably Republican, delivering big double-digit victories in the early 2000s. They have since transformed politically.

The days of 40- and 30-point leads for Republicans were a distant memory in Williamson County before O’Rourke narrowly flipped it in 2018. That year, Abbott easily held on to the county in his reelection bid, but another statewide Republican — Attorney General Ken Paxton — lost there. Tuesday night’s results may have put the county into the battleground category after Abbott managed only a 1-point lead.

Hays County, however, may be out of reach for Republicans moving forward. Home to Texas State University, the county hadn’t voted for Democrats at the top of the ticket since 1992 before swinging hard for O’Rourke in 2018 and narrowly opting for Abbott’s Democratic challenger that year, former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez.

Hays gave Biden a slimmer margin in 2020, which O’Rourke was able to match this year. In fact, O’Rourke’s lead over Abbott in Hays slightly outpaced his margin of victory in big blue Harris County.

Political contrasts in Harris County’s largest suburbs

Often described as the most ethnically diverse in the United States, Fort Bend County’s hard swing toward Democrats began in 2016 when the party hoped the county’s diversity could turn it reliably purple. O’Rourke widened Democrats’ lead in the 2018 Senate race while Abbott took home a razor-thin 0.2% margin of victory.

The county remained blue Tuesday night but with a narrower margin for O’Rourke.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County remains a bright spot for Republicans, offering the party whopping double-digit margins of victory. North of Harris County, it is home to The Woodlands and Conroe and has a significantly higher share of white residents than Fort Bend. Abbott managed to boost the Republican lead by several points Tuesday night, though he underperformed compared with his win in 2014, when he was first elected governor.

In North Texas, Republican margins rebound

Big blue Dallas County aside, North Texas has long been Republican country, but the party’s dominance suffered in the Trump era.

Most notably, O’Rourke narrowly flipped Tarrant County — considered the most conservative urban county in the country — in 2018. Biden managed to hold on to the county two years later. Republicans may rest easier now that the state’s third-largest county has flipped back to Republicans with a 4-point lead for Abbott, but the governor fell well short of matching his 2014 performance.

Abbott also helped Republicans rebound in Denton and Collin counties, where Democrats had cut into their control since 2016. But the GOP is still a long way from returning to pre-Trump support in the increasingly diverse pockets of the state.

Republicans once saw 40- to 50-point winning margins in Collin County. The first time he ran for governor in 2014, Abbott won the county by more than 30 points.

On Tuesday night, he won by just 10.

With additional reporting by Jade Khatib and Caroline Covington

Texas election officials accused of harassment and discrimination against Black voters

On the eve of the election, an East Texas county is facing allegations of intimidating and discriminating against Black voters during early voting.

In a federal lawsuit filed Monday, the Beaumont chapter of the NAACP and Jessica Daye, a Black registered voter, accused Jefferson County election officials of unconstitutionally harassing Black voters in Beaumont by scrutinizing their identities and shadowing them while at the voting stations. A federal judge Monday evening held an emergency hearing on the lawsuit, which asks for changes during Tuesday’s election.

“White poll workers throughout early voting repeatedly asked in aggressive tones only Black voters and not White voters to recite, out loud within the earshot of other voters, poll workers, and poll watchers, their addresses, even when the voter was already checked in by a poll worker,” the suit claims.

“White poll workers and White poll watchers followed Black voters and in some cases their Black voter assistants around the polling place, including standing two feet behind a Black voter and the assistant, while the voter was at the machine casting a ballot,” the suit continued. “White poll workers helped White voters scan their voted ballots into voting machines but did not similarly help Black voters scan their ballots.”

Daye witnessed such an incident while in line to cast her ballot last week at a community center that serves a predominantly Black community in north Beaumont where she typically votes, the suit claims. Daye was a few feet behind an elderly Black voter who, the lawsuit alleges, had already been checked in to vote by a Black election worker. But when the voter moved down the table to where a white poll worker stood, the poll worker “aggressively asked the elderly Black voter to show him her identification again and recite her address out loud to him.”

Daye abandoned the polling place without voting for fear of facing the same treatment and plans to vote at a different polling place on Election Day. White voters, the lawsuit claims, were not asked to recite their addresses out loud after already being checked in.

In the lawsuit, Daye and the NAACP are asking a federal judge to declare the election workers’ actions unconstitutional treatment of Black voters in violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments as well as a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act which guarantees the right to vote without intimidation. They are asking the judge to block county election workers from engaging in the same behavior during Election Day.

Located to the east of Houston, the city of Beaumont sits in the northeast corner of Jefferson County. While Jefferson County is majority white, Beaumont’s population is 45% Black and 43.5% white.

To be checked in, voters must present a photo ID to verify their identity. The election worker checking them in will then pull up the list of registered voters to locate the voter and compare their name.

Once they’ve determined the voter is registered, the Texas Election Code says the election worker must ask if the address on their voter registration record has changed. Though Texas requires photo ID to vote, the address on the ID does not have to match what’s on a voter’s registration record. Once this is verified, the voter will be asked to sign a roster and then directed to the voting area.

Meanwhile, no other person — except the person assisting a voter — is allowed to be present while they prepare their ballot, according to the secretary of state’s handbook for election judges.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit statewide news organization dedicated to keeping Texans informed on politics and policy issues that impact their communities. This election season, Texans around the state will turn to The Texas Tribune for the information they need on voting, election results, analysis of key races and more. Get the latest.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/11/07/voting-discrimination-lawsuit-beaumont/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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Former Texas mayor acquitted of illegal voting years after high-profile arrest by state’s election fraud unit

A Hidalgo County jury on Thursday acquitted former Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina of several voter fraud charges stemming from the 2017 election that brought him to power, according to local reports.

Local newsoutlets reported Molina was acquitted on a 12-count indictment that included one count of engaging in organized voter fraud and 11 counts of illegal voting. His high-profile arrest by the state’s election fraud unit in 2019 was announced by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton as part of what he described as “an organized illegal voting scheme” in the November 2017 municipal election.

The case was prosecuted by the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to a 2019 news release from the attorney general’s office, Molina was accused of directing voters to change their addresses to places where they did not live — including an apartment complex owned by Molina — so they could vote for him. Molina won the election by 1,240 votes, unseating then-incumbent Mayor Richard Garcia in the South Texas town.

By the time Molina was detained, 18 others had been arrested in connection with the scheme, according to the attorney general’s office, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. Some of those cases are still ongoing.

The Monitor newspaper in McAllen reported that prosecutors described the case as one “about lying and cheating.” Among the state’s witnesses were three voters who testified that Molina asked them to change addresses on their voter registrations.

Molina has long maintained his innocence, labeling the investigation as politically motivated. During the trial, Molina’s attorneys said he had not intended to violate election laws. They presented a “mistake of law defense,” arguing the former mayor relied on “reasonable authorities” when he instructed voters they could change the address to participate in Edinburg elections, according to reports by The Monitor.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/25/edinburg-voter-fraud-not-guilty-richard-molina/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Uvalde teacher and her heartbroken husband buried next to each other in twin caskets: report

In the days following the school shooting at Robb Elementary, the streets of this small town were lined by sets of 21.

The 21 bows of gauzy ribbon tied to the thin posts of a black iron gate. The 21 candles glowing from the window ledge of the historic Uvalde Grand Opera House. The row of classroom chairs — 19 small red ones and two taller black ones — looking out onto Getty Street.

But then 21 turned to 22.

At a memorial on the town square, another white cross was added next to the tribute to veteran teacher Irma Garcia, who died in the shooting. The 22nd cross was in honor of Joe Garcia, her husband who died suddenly two days later. The family has said it was on account of a broken heart.

“I know this was too much for you and your poor heart couldn’t take it,” reads a scribbled note on the right-side swell of the blue heart on Joe’s cross. “I will spend the rest of my life fighting for you and mom. Your names will not be forgotten.”

The note is signed “Your daughter, Lyliana” with a small heart drawn next to her name.

On Wednesday, Irma and Joe Garcia were buried side by side in twin brown caskets at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery in a coupled funeral that captured just how far the tendrils of tragedy can stretch. The May 24 school shooting left 19 families burying children, but it also orphaned the Garcias’ four children.

Hundreds filled the pews at Sacred Heart Catholic Church for a funeral Mass on Wednesday morning during which San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller called the couple’s children up to the altar. The four stood together between their parents’ caskets, draped in white sheets, as the archbishop called on the congregation to help sustain them in faith and in love. The couple’s oldest is a Marine who wore his dress blues to the service; the youngest was finishing the seventh grade this year.

The high school sweethearts died days apart a month before they would have celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.

The Mass — some parts in English, others in Spanish — was closed to press but streamed online.

“You did what you would have done for any of us,” García-Siller said in Spanish, describing how Irma, a lifelong educator, had given to her students “until her last breath.”

Irma Garcia, 48, was days away from wrapping up her 23rd year of teaching — every one at Robb Elementary. She co-taught fourth grade with Eva Mireles, the second teacher who died in the shooting, sharing adjoining classrooms. In social media posts from years before, Garcia celebrated the school’s ritual of welcoming back former students dressed in the district’s maroon school colors for “senior walks” ahead of their graduations.

“Seeing them return to their elementary schools wearing their cap and gown … is the reason every teacher in this district does what they do,” Garcia wrote. “That moment makes all the struggles, long hours, and endless paper work so worth it.”

Joe, meanwhile, had died out of love, García-Siller said.

He was born in Uvalde; she was born in San Antonio. The couple began their relationship in high school, an obituary said, flourishing into a love that was “beautiful and kind.”

Joe, 50, had worked for the H-E-B grocery store for decades, rising from a produce stocker to management, said Juan Silvas, who said he met Joe almost two decades ago. Silvas was in town from Crystal City on Wednesday to relieve local workers.

“He would always want to make sure that everything was right, trying to make sure everything was great, so that way the next person behind him wouldn’t have to do too much work,” Silvas said.

The couple represented a cross-section of this mostly Hispanic, working-class community. She was an educator, preparing generations worth of children for life. He kept shelves stocked so neighbors could feed their families.

After the services, a pair of black hearses transported their bodies a mile down the road to Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery, where many of the victims from Robb Elementary will be laid to rest.

Gathered around two large green tents, the mourners included Uvalde educators and district staff who wore dark gray and maroon polo shirts, the district’s “U” logo embroidered on the left side, and H-E-B workers who donned the store’s familiar name tags.

Once all those who gathered had paid their respects, the large white sprays of roses that sat atop each casket were removed. As the undertakers began their work with the Garcia children looking on, the eldest lifted his white-gloved hand in a salute.

He held it until both of his parents were lowered into the ground.

Jason Beeferman contributed to this report.

A GOP power grab shatters 30 years of political progress for Black voters in Galveston County

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TEXAS CITY — Miles inland from Galveston’s beaches and colorful vacation homes, a group of Black men dribble and jump on a covered basketball court, aiming for a chain-link net.

Carver Park in Texas City, created during segregation, is considered the first African American county park in the state. It sits on land donated by descendants of freedmen who survived slavery and pioneered one of Texas’ oldest Black settlements, the footprint of which sits just a few blocks away.

Until last year, the park sat at the heart of Galveston County’s Precinct 3 — the most diverse of the four precincts that choose the commissioners court, which governs the county along with the county judge. Precinct 3 was the lone seat in which Black and Hispanic voters, who make up about 38% of the county’s population, made up the majority of the electorate.

The precinct sliced the middle of coastal Galveston County, stretching from the small city of Dickinson on the county’s northern end through residential areas of Texas City and down to the eastern end of Galveston Island. Its residents included medical professionals and staff drawn in by The University of Texas Medical Branch, petrochemical workers that operate a large cluster of refineries and commuter employees of the nearby NASA Johnson Space Center.

The area stood as an exemplar of Black political power and progress. For 30 years, Black voters — with support from Hispanics — had amassed enough political clout to decide the county commissioner for Precinct 3, propelling Black leaders onto a majority white county commissioners court. They worked to gain stronger footholds in local governments, elevating Black people into city halls across the precinct. Two years ago, they reached a milestone, electing Texas City’s first Black mayor and a city commission on which people of color are the majority.

Attendees listen to traditional music during a Cinco de Mayo parade and festival on April 30, 2022.

Members of the community attend a Cinco de Mayo festival in Texas City. Black and Hispanic residents account for roughly 60% of the population. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

Leticia Solis gets close to the group of horses after they finished riding in a Cinco de Mayo parade in Texas City on April 30, 2022.

Leticia Solis approaches a group of horses after the Cinco de Mayo parade. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

But the white Republican majority on the Galveston County’s commissioners court decided last November to dismantle Precinct 3. Capitalizing on its first opportunity to redraw commissioner precincts without federal oversight, the court splintered Black and Hispanic communities into majority-white districts.

Under the final map, which will be used for this year’s election and possibly for a decade, white voters make up at least 62% of the electorate in each precinct, though the county’s total population is only about 55% white. Because white voters in Galveston — like Texas generally — tend to support different candidates than Black and Hispanic voters, the map will effectively quash the electoral power of voters of color.

The new map was so egregious to officials at the U.S. Department of Justice that it prompted the department to file its only federal lawsuit at the county level in the entire nation challenging a redistricting plan as discriminatory.

Black residents here have often needed federal intervention to help them pursue equality and fairness. Without it, it’s possible the white power structure will never voluntarily grant them them political equity and would continue threatening the gains they’ve achieved over the last few decades.

“With the district, people feel that they have a voice and a choice. Without it, no voice, no choice,” said Lucille McGaskey, a longtime Galveston County resident whose community in the city of La Marque was drawn out of Precinct 3. “It’s a shame … that it has come to people trying to wipe other people out.”

Fighting the past

Commissioner Stephen Holmes in his office on April 21, 2022, in Texas City.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes was appointed to the role after Wayne Johnson, the county’s first Black commissioner, died in 1999. Holmes is used to casting the lone dissenting vote on the Republican-majority commissioners court. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

Galveston’s ignominious racial past looks over the shoulders of the tourists and passersby traversing The Strand, a street of historic Victorian-style buildings just off Galveston Bay.

An imposing 5,000-square-foot mural, completed just last year, depicts the long journey from slavery to freedom that runs through Galveston. Known locally as the Juneteenth mural, it covers the side of a building overlooking the spot from which a Union Army general issued the order in 1865 that led to freedom for a quarter-million enslaved Black people in Texas, among the last to be freed after the end of the Civil War.

Galveston’s dreams of greatness in those days rested on its access to the water and proximity to cotton fields, and it boomed as a trade gateway for Texas and the Southwest. In recent years, historical markers have been added along The Strand to more fully recognize that those economic aspirations depended on the dehumanization of people kept as slaves.

The markers and the mural are symbolic, though they offer those with long ties to the area a more official — or at least public — acknowledgement of this community’s history and the way Black residents still find themselves fighting the past.

Though he’s a product of Galveston County, Commissioner Stephen Holmes did not initially grasp the significance of Precinct 3 to the community when he was suddenly appointed to the job in 1999 after the previous commissioner died. A prosecutor by trade, he inherited the seat from Wayne Johnson, who had become the county’s first Black commissioner in 1988.

Once in office, Holmes was struck by the intense pride his constituents took in Precinct 3, the ultimate spoils of a yearslong struggle to build coalitions, often assisted by federal intervention to protect voting rights. Early in his tenure, he met older voters who were the grandchildren of people who had been held as slaves. Some of his constituents had participated in sit-ins, paid poll taxes, attended segregated schools and lived through a long stretch during which their voices were shut out at the highest level of local government.

“This is a 1960s-style fight for democracy,” Holmes said from his precinct offices housed in an old Wal-Mart building turned government complex in Texas City.

Holmes — who is Black, the only Democrat on the commissioners court and the only one who is not white — said it’s impossible for him to win reelection when his term is up in 2024 given the new Republican map dissecting his precinct. He sees the effort not as an indictment of his public service but a repudiation of his constituents.

During his time in office, Holmes has grown accustomed to being on the losing end of 4-1 votes — the sole foil to the court’s Republican majority. But he has at least captured the voices of his constituents on agenda items that have recently included a local disaster declaration regarding the border, which is 400 miles away, and putting COVID relief funds toward building a border wall. He was the lone dissenter to keeping a Confederate statue on the grounds of the old county courthouse.

He has also built strong ties with his constituents in moments of both joy and despair.

Holmes proudly displays in his office a large panoramic photo of a jubilant crowd at one of the annual barbecues he hosts. The soiree is a community staple and highlight for some of the older, mostly Black residents who typically attend. In recent years, the event has included dance performances by some of those residents who dub themselves the “Stevettes.”

The photo hangs over a waiting area Holmes and his team used as a makeshift FEMA help center in the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction when his constituents faced hourslong wait times to request assistance through the federal agency’s disaster phone line. Holmes set up county laptops so his constituents without computers or internet could access a FEMA website and he helped figure out transportation for those who couldn’t get to his office on their own.

Galveston County commissioners Darrell Apffel, Joe Giusti, County Judge Mark Henry and Commissioner Stephen Holmes pose for a group photo during a Galveston County Commissioners Court meeting in Galveston, TX, on Monday, April 4, 2022.

From left: Galveston County Commissioners Darrell Apffel and Joe Giusti, County Judge Mark Henry, and Commissioner Stephen Holmes pose for a group photo during a Galveston County Commissioners Court meeting. Holmes is used to casting the lone dissenting vote on the Republican-majority court. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

Republican power play

Set back behind a row of massive crepe myrtle trees with thick trunks that, like the rickety shiplap of nearby houses, are showing their age, the old entrance of the “Colored Branch of Rosenberg Library” sits on a quiet street near downtown Galveston in a portion of the island that used to fall within Precinct 3.

Given its proximity to her home, Sharon Lewis has had to explain the significance of the relic of segregation to her granddaughter, using the same refrain she uses to describe historical inflection points to her — “a moment in history.”

Lewis was among the last to speak of the roughly 40 mostly Black residents who packed the November meeting to vociferously oppose the court’s redistricting plan. Just two people testified in support. Pastors, local officials and longtime residents took turns admonishing the court for dismantling Precinct 3, leaving hardly any room for them to participate in the process and turning back the clock on their representation. The ordeal was in some ways a preview of what they feared will result from the county’s mapmaking — that they will no longer have a voice.

The events leading up to commissioners’ vote on the map had proved to be a bold exercise of Republican power wrangling.

The proposal was placed on the court’s agenda on the last day by which the county could make changes before the March primary election. The meeting — the only one allowing public testimony on the proposal— was scheduled for the middle of a workday in an annex building at the county’s edge instead of the larger county courthouse. The room was so small that only two commissioners and County Judge Mark Henry fit on the dais; Holmes sat at a small white table down in front of them.

Scores of residents showed up and many were left in the hallway straining to follow the proceedings or hear their names called to speak.

A statue of a returning Confederate soldier on Thursday, April 21, 2022 in Galveston, TX. Known as The “Dignified Resignation,” the monument has stood in front of the Galveston County Courthouse since 1911. Commissioner Stephen Holmes made a motion to have the statue removed in 2020 but it was not supported by any other commissioners.

A statue of a returning Confederate soldier on Thursday, April 21, 2022 in Galveston, TX. Known as The “Dignified Resignation,” the monument has stood in front of the Galveston County Courthouse since 1911. Commissioner Stephen Holmes made a motion to have the statue removed in 2020 but it was not supported by any other commissioners. Credit: Contributor

District 1 councilmember Sharon Lewis poses outside of her home on April 21, 2022, in Galveston, TX.

District 1 councilmember Sharon Lewis poses outside of her home on April 21, 2022, in Galveston, TX. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

Left: Known as the “Dignified Resignation,” a monument of a Confederate solider has stood outside the Galveston County Courthouse since 1911. Right: For the November vote on the new map, the meeting was moved to a different building instead of its usual venue at the county courthouse. Sharon Lewis showed up to the packed meeting alongside community members to protest the new redistricting plan. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

When people complained they could not hear, Henry tersely responded that the room did not have microphones and he wasn’t going to shout. When the crowd collectively scoffed at his remark, he threatened to clear them out if they made noise.

“I’ve got constables here,” said Henry, who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story.

Henry and the other commissioners did not address any of the public’s concerns, except to say there was no time to consider anything except two proposals drawn up by a Republican consultant — both of which upended the boundaries of Precinct 3.

Just before the court’s vote, Holmes held the floor with an attentive audience that hummed in disapproval as he detailed the chicanery of the Republican maneuver.

County Judge Mark Henry greets attendees at a Galveston County Commissioners Court meeting in Galveston, TX, on Monday, April 4, 2022.

County Judge Mark Henry at a Galveston County Commissioners Court meeting on April 4. Henry, who voted in favor of the new map, has said the redistricting plan helps merge the coastal counties into one precinct. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

There had been no criteria adopted to guide the redistricting process, the only commissioner elected by Black and Hispanic voters was largely shut out of the process and the opinions of those testifying were being cast aside.

The crowd was cheering by the time Holmes pronounced they would not “go quietly in the night.”

“We’re going to rage, rage, rage until justice is done to us,” Holmes said.

The court passed its new map on a 3-1 vote (one commissioner was absent) and quickly adjourned. The other two commissioners who voted for the plan, Darrell Apffel and Joe Giusti, also did not respond to requests for comment, though Henry and Apffel have been quotedin the local newspaper arguing that the redistricting plan will benefit the county by consolidating its coastal areas into one precinct.

Under the county’s new map, most of Precinct 3 was cracked in three ways, significantly reducing its footprint to the whiter northwest portion of the county and shrinking its share of Black and Hispanic voters by 28 percentage points. Holmes’ former constituents in more diverse pockets of the county were split across the four precincts.

After the hearing adjourned, those who had gathered joined hands and transformed the ordinary government meeting room into a protest venue with a rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” Recalling that moment, Holmes noted he had sung those words many times throughout his life and certainly since taking office, including at events commemorating Black history. But he realized he had never personally taken on their weight the way activists and protesters did when they lifted the song up as a civil rights anthem.

“I will tell you that that may have been the first time that I really felt it in my soul, about what people during the civil rights movement felt when they were singing those songs,” Holmes said.

The Justice Department’s lawsuit landed four months later. In a complaint filed in federal court in Galveston, it argued the map was discriminatory because it denied Black and Hispanic citizens an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.

People play basketball at Carver Park on April 21, 2022, in Texas City.

People played basketball last month at Carver Park in Texas City. The historical park, on land donated by descendants of freedmen, is considered the first African American county park in the state. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

“The way I think about this is that there’s been a consistent battle in Galveston for decades over ensuring fair representation for Black and brown communities,” said Hilary Harris Klein, a senior counsel for voting rights with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which also sued the county over the map on behalf of three local branches of the NAACP and a local LULAC chapter.

(The county has not yet formally addressed the legal issues raised in the lawsuits, which both claim the court ran afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act. Instead, the county asked for a postponement in the case until possibly 2023 while the U.S. Supreme Court considers a challenge out of Alabama that could further contract the Voting Rights Act’s protections from discrimination in redistricting.)

The redraw of Precinct 3 likely would have been blocked under federal oversight — known as preclearance — that existed before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County vs. Holder, which dismantled the law designed to shield voters of color from being robbed of political power.

A lynchpin of the Voting Rights Act, the oversight, covered states like Texas with long histories of discrimination and required changes to elections and voting maps to clear federal reviews before taking effect.

That protection proved crucial in Galveston’s redistricting a decade ago when the commissioners court similarly attempted to reconfigure Holmes’ district but were blocked by the Justice Department. The court backed away and Precinct 3 was preserved.

But preclearance was gone by last year’s redistricting work, the first time in nearly half a century that lawmakers, both at the state and local level, could redo political maps without federal supervision. Freed from review, the Galveston County commissioners — led by the same county judge from a decade before — made good on their previous effort.

“That is something that the powers in play have been trying to do for a very long time and with the Shelby decision and with the dismantling of preclearance, they saw that as a tacit permission to do so,” Harris Klein said. “Galveston is really emblematic of what’s happening across the South post-Shelby. We’re seeing the biggest regression in minority rights since the Voting Rights Act was passed.”

Across the country and in Texas, Republicans are using the latest round of redistricting — and their new freedom — to preserve the GOP’s political dominance and cement their power even at the cost of communities of color.

In Galveston, the impending elimination of Holmes as the only Black commissioner echoes efforts in other parts of the country where the districts of Black elected officials from the county level to Congress are being chipped away in maps that erase decades of electoral gains by the voters of color. Just this week, though, Henry appointed Robin Armstrong, a Republican local doctor who is Black, to finish out the term of the county’s fourth commissioner, who recently died.

Anger and disappointment

The two legal cases against Galveston County are now at the start of what’s expected to be a drawn-out stay in federal court, but locals fear the fight could determine more than just the fate of Precinct 3.

Lucille McGaskey poses for a portrait outside of Galveston Houston Authority, where she works, on April 22, 2022.

“It’s a shame … that it has come to people trying to wipe other people out,” Lucille McGaskey says of the redistricting plans that took her city, La Marque, out of Precinct 3. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

In between the commissioners court’s decennial efforts to pull apart the precinct, the communities that comprise it have been quietly working to harness the power of their votes. In 2020, the voters of Texas City elected Dedrick Johnson, making him the city’s first Black mayor. He governs the heavily industrial city of 50,000, where Black and Hispanic residents account for roughly 60% of the population, along with a city commission of six members — four of whom are people of color.

Johnson ran unopposed for reelection this year. But in describing the fallout of dismantling Precinct 3, many residents wonder how long those gains can be maintained when the message Galveston County voters are receiving through the county is that their votes don’t matter.

From his desk behind the midcentury modern facade of city hall, Johnson said he understands those fears, especially given the treatment Precinct 3 residents received at the commissioner’s November meeting when they faced what he described as an “arrogant display” of disregard for their voices.

“One of the things that is a core tenet of the elected official is you are elected by the people to work for the people, and when you silence the voice of the people then one is unsure that those who are elected will actually do what they say they’re going to do,” Johnson said. “And if that [November meeting] is any indication of the representation that those people will subsequently get from this redistricting, then it confirms their anger. It confirms their disappointment.”

Others are bracing for what the devaluation of Black and Hispanic votes in the county will mean for efforts to bring more people into the electoral process.

That’s the mission community activist Roxy Hall Williamson has adopted since returning to Galveston Island a few years ago. She traces her ties to Galveston back to her grandmother who was a nurse there and her grandfather who worked as a ship’s cook. Williamson was born on the island, and her mother moved her family away when she was a child but she returned every summer.

Once her daughter graduated high school, Williamson returned to Galveston permanently. After attending a political event, she started seeking out opportunities to organize and has more recently been working to establish a local voter advocacy group through which she wants to create a suite of voter education tools, hoping to pass down voting literacy in the way some families pass down generational wealth.

But these days, Williamson grimaces at how she’d even convince someone to register to vote once they’ve heard the news of the new county map.

“It’s almost going to suck all the air out of it,” she said.

Roxy D Hall Williamson stands next to a historical marker commemorating Juneteenth in Galveston, TX, on Monday, April 4, 2022.

Community activist Roxy Hall Williamson stands next to a historical marker commemorating Juneteenth in Galveston. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

Williamson proudly shepherds out-of-town visitors to the Juneteenth mural in Galveston to share her community’s truth. She helped organize the turnout at the commissioners court’s November meeting, but when she walked out of the crowded room once it adjourned she realized how much the present was echoing the past.

Feeling that the Black people of Galveston County were again in need of protection from discrimination by their own government, she pulled out her cellphone and dialed the Department of Justice’s civil rights hotline.

“What did it all mean if they can just take it away?” Williamson said.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/20/galveston-redistricting-black-voters/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

More than 12% of mail-in ballots were rejected in Texas under new GOP voting rules: final tally

The votes of more than 24,000 Texans who tried to cast ballots by mail were thrown out in the March primary — a dramatic increase in rejected ballots in the first election held under a new Republican voting law.

Roughly 12.4% of mail-in ballots returned to the state’s 254 counties were not counted, according to figures released Wednesday by the Texas secretary of state. Just over 3 million people voted overall in the low-turnout primary.

Of 24,636 rejected mail-in ballots, 14,281 belonged to voters attempting to participate in the Democratic primary, and 10,355 belonged to voters in the Republican primary. But the rejection rate by party was fairly aligned; 12.9% of Democratic ballots were rejected and 11.8% of Republican ballots were rejected.

Put another way, 1 in every 8 mail-in voters lost their votes in their primary. The rate amounts to a significant surge in rejections compared with previous years, including the higher-turnout 2020 presidential election, when less than 1% of ballots were tossed.

Data previously collected by The Texas Tribune found rejection rates ranging from 6% to nearly 22% in 16 of the state’s 20 counties with the most registered voters, which overall rejected 18,742 mail-in ballots. In most cases, county officials said, ballots were rejected for failing to meet new, stricter ID requirements enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature last year that require voters to provide their driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number to vote by mail.

By contrast, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission found less than 2% of mail-in ballots were rejected statewide in the 2018 midterm election. The statewide rejection rate in the 2020 presidential election was less than 1%. In the higher-turnout 2020 election, 8,304 ballots were tossed statewide. In the 2022 primary — for which turnout fell shy of 18% — roughly three times as many ballots were rejected.

The data released by the secretary of state is the most official measure of the fallout of the tighter restrictions on voting by mail, which have so far proven the most frustrating aspect of Republicans’ voting law in its first test.

The requirements were part of a package of voting changes and restrictions enacted last year through legislation known as Senate Bill 1, which Republicans argued were needed to enhance the security of the state’s election even though they lacked evidence that previous elections had been foiled by widespread irregularities. Republican leaders who championed the law often said the measures in SB 1 would make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.

But the requirements vexed both voters and election workers responsible for processing mail-in ballots. In the lead-up to the election, county officials reported that qualified voters — some of whom had previously voted by mail many times — were being hampered by the law. In some cases, it took Texans as many as three attempts to get their votes through. Others abandoned the voting-by-mail option altogether, opting to vote in person instead for fear of being disenfranchised, county election officials previously said.

Texas’ strict eligibility criteria for voting by mail means the thousands of tossed votes most likely belonged to people 65 and older and people with disabilities.

Tina Tran, director of AARP Texas, called the reported numbers "deeply troubling and a sad indication that too many voters, including many older voters, are being disenfranchised" because of the changes to the state's vote-by-mail rules.

"With a primary runoff election approaching and the state’s general election scheduled for the fall, it is imperative that state and local election officials work extraordinarily hard and fast to better communicate new identification rules to voters," Tran said in a statement. "Lessons must be learned to prevent more voter disenfranchisement in the upcoming elections."

The office of Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed the bill into law, has not responded to requests for comment about the ballot rejection issues. The secretary of state's office has vowed to ramp up voter education about the rules ahead of the general election. But local election officials remained limited in how they can interact with prospective mail-in voters, including a new prohibition on "soliciting" requests for mail-in ballots from voters that county election administrators say they fear violating.

County election officials have also walked away from specific outreach to regular mail-in voters in light of the prohibition.

Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/06/texas-mail-in-ballot-rejection-voting/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas is quietly using redistricting lawsuits to launch a broader war against federal voting rights law

"Texas is quietly using redistricting lawsuits to launch a broader war against federal voting rights law" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Beyond the immediate legal fight over whether Texas lawmakers again discriminated against voters of color when drawing new political districts, a quieter war is being waged that could dramatically constrict voting rights protections nationwide for years to come.

For decades, redistricting in Texas has tracked a familiar rhythm — new maps are followed by claims of discrimination and lawsuits asking federal courts to step in. Over the years, Texas lawmakers have repeatedly been ordered to correct gerrymandering that suppressed the political power of Black and Hispanic voters.

The pathway to federal court has been through the Voting Rights Act. Key portions of the landmark law have been weakened in the last decade, but Texans of color still find a way to file lawsuits under its Section 2, which prohibits discriminatory voting procedures and practices that deny voters of color an equal opportunity to participate in elections.

Those protections are the vehicle being used by voters and various civil rights groups to challenge political maps for Congress and the state legislature drawn by Texas Republicans in 2021 to account for population growth. In what promises to be a protracted court fight, Texas will defend itself against accusations that it discriminated — in some cases intentionally — against voters of color.

But tucked into the legal briefs the state has filed with a three-judge panel considering the redistricting lawsuits are two arguments that reach far beyond the validity of the specific maps being challenged.

First, the Texas attorney general’s office is arguing that private individuals — like the average voters and civil rights groups now suing the state — don't have standing to bring lawsuits under Section 2. That would leave only the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue alleged violations of the act, putting enforcement in the hands of the political party in power.

Second, the state argues that Section 2 does not apply to redistricting issues at all.

Should either argument prevail — which would almost certainly require it to be embraced by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court that has already struck down other portions of the law — the courthouse door will be slammed shut on many future lawsuits over discriminatory map-drawing and voting practices.

“Fundamentally, this Supreme Court thinks we are past the time in which we need the Voting Rights Act, so of course if you're a state like Texas, you’re going to bring every argument that’s ever been made to challenge the constitutionality of the rest of it,” said Franita Tolson, a vice dean and law professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

For now, the Texas redistricting fight is in the hands of a three-judge panel in El Paso. An assembly of individual voters, organizations that serve Texans of color and the U.S. Department of Justice is challenging the redrawn maps, claiming they illegally diminish the voting strength of voters of color while giving white voters more political power.

The case won’t go to trial until the fall, but the panel has already recognized Texas’ attempt to steer voting rights law onto new terrain.

The state’s challenges to Section 2 first surfaced in its failed efforts to convince the court to throw out the lawsuits without even considering the merits of the challengers’ claims. The panel — made up of one Democratic and two Republican appointees — rejected the argument on standing, deeming it “ambitious” for a court to agree with the state in light of “precedent and history.”

“Absent contrary direction from a higher court, we decline to break new ground on this particular issue,” the court said in December.

State lawyers themselves have acknowledged their second argument on whether Section 2 applies to redistricting is “currently foreclosed by precedent.”

But in consequent filings, the state has been clear it is inserting the arguments into the case to lay the groundwork for appeals and possible consideration by the Supreme Court — where, experts in voting law and civil rights advocates say, the state may find a more receptive audience.

The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for an interview with a member of the legal team on the case. In its briefs, the state argues the Supreme Court has never actually decided whether Section 2 gives private individuals “implied” standing to sue, quoting from a recent opinion by conservative appointees to the court that describes the issue as “an open question.”

The state’s claim that Section 2 does not apply to redistricting was initially contained within a footnote but remains brief, pointing to equally brief statements by conservative appointees to the court.

Since its enactment in 1965, the Voting Rights Act has proven a powerful stopgap to the state’s attempted discrimination against its own residents. Texas has not made it through a single decade without a federal court ruling it violated federal law by illegally discriminating against voters of color in some fashion.

For much of that time, the legal fights took place under a process known as preclearance; Texas and other states with a history of discrimination were required to get federal approval for new districts. That put the burden on the state to prove that its redistricting work did not set back voters of color — a test which the state repeatedly failed.

Noting that conditions for voters of color had "dramatically improved," the Supreme Court dismantled the preclearance regime in a 2013 decision. As part of its reasoning, the court pointed out that Section 2 would continue to stand as a bulwark against voter suppression.

But the high court has subsequently weakened what remains of the Voting Rights Act, including a decision in Texas’ last redistricting cycle granting state lawmakers a high presumption of acting in “good faith” when enacting new maps — which legal experts have argued makes it harder to convince the courts of violations.

The turnover at the Supreme Court has cracked the door for “audacious attacks on Section 2,” that would have “never had a chance” under previous iterations of the court, said Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine who specializes in voting law. Texas is trying to push the door wide open.

In legal briefs, Texas’ argument that Section 2 does not apply to redistricting relies almost exclusively on a series of comments in opinions by Justice Clarence Thomas, who has plainly endorsed the idea in cases dating back to 1994. Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee who joined the court in 2017, echoed the view in one of Thomas' recent opinions.

In a recent case over Arizona voting laws, Thomas and Gorsuch also joined an opinion indicating they agreed with the argument Texas is offering now that private individuals cannot sue to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

The fallout if the Supreme Court agreed with the state on either argument would be radical, upending long established procedures for litigating claims of discrimination in voting and redistricting, and making it harder to enforce what has endured as the chief federal protection for voters of color in a post-preclearance world.

Covering its bets, the state is also pressing a backup argument — that even if individual voters are allowed to sue under Section 2, organizations that serve voters of color cannot bring claims on their behalf. That could knock out of the box groups like the NAACP and LULAC who may have more resources and membership across the state to prop up the complex challenges.

If affirmed by the court, that prospect would put even more pressure on private individuals to protect themselves from alleged discrimination by the state, said Noor Taj, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who is representing various civil rights and community groups that serve Texans of color, particularly Asian Texans, in a lawsuit against the maps.

“It’s either taking their rights altogether or increasing the burden,” Taj said. “Both ends of that are problematic and incorrect.”

If the high court ultimately decides redistricting lawsuits simply aren't allowed under Section 2, the recourse left for Texans of color to challenge political maps would be litigation under the U.S. Constitution’s broader promise of equal protection.

That would require challengers to show lawmakers intentionally discriminated against them — “which is the hardest case to win, particularly before a Supreme Court,” said Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The state’s efforts to overturn protections for voters of color is ironic given its long history of violating the same law it is now looking to gut, said Perales, who is suing the state over its latest maps on behalf of a group of individual voters and organizations that represent Latinos.

“Since the beginning of the modern era of decennial redistricting, Texas has been found liable for violating the voting rights of Latinos in every single cycle,” Perales said.

The more “aggressive attacks” on Section 2 have come as it’s getting harder for Republicans to comply with the law while preserving their power, Hasen said.

In the first decade freed from preclearance, the Republican-controlled Legislature last year used the redistricting process to draw maps that solidified the GOP’s political dominance in Texas while weakening the influence of voters of color.

To that end, Republicans looked beyond packing voters of color into the fewest number of districts, taking an almost surgical approach to slicing up diverse suburban communities that were trending against them. Voters of color in those areas were left stranded in sprawling districts that stretch into more rural areas where majority white electorates will overpower their votes.

The Supreme Court’s recent posture on voting rights “has emboldened states like Texas to do what they think they can do to enhance the power of white Republicans in the state of Texas and roll the dice in front of a much more favorable judiciary than they faced a decade ago,” Hasen said.

Republican lawmakers defended their map-drawing, arguing districts were reconfigured to equalize population while following various traditional guidelines, such as preserving political subdivisions, communities of interest and geographic compactness. One of the chief map-drawers characterized the drawing as a “race-blind” exercise with maps later presented to legal counsel who cleared them as compliant with the Voting Rights Act.

But the redistricting sprint — under complete Republican control — drew complaints for being rushed and closed off. Throughout the process, the public was limited in its ability to weigh in on the new maps. Some public hearings were carried out within days of new maps being revealed or with just a 24-hour notice. Much of the feedback from Texans who told lawmakers their maps were not reflective of their communities was ignored.

In committees and on the House and Senate floors, the fate of the GOP’s drafting often appeared to be predetermined, sure to advance even before the public or Democratic lawmakers had been heard.

The state’s current effort to now undermine protections for voters of color is an extension of its pattern of manipulating the rules at the expense of voters of color it has historically discriminated against, said Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks.

Brooks is among the plaintiffs in the lawsuits over the new maps who would be unable to sue the state under the scenario Texas is looking to cement in challenging the Voting Rights Act.

“It very clearly demonstrates that those in power are determined to hold onto it by any means necessary,” Brooks said. “If that means trampling on the rights of Black and Hispanic voters, then they are more than willing to do that again and again and again.”

We can’t wait to welcome you in person and online to the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol from Sept. 22-24. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/04/texas-redistricting-voting-rights-act/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Judge rules Texas ban on encouraging mail-in votes likely unconstitutional

SAN ANTONIO — A new Texas law that keeps local election officials from encouraging voters to request mail-in ballots likely violates the First Amendment, a federal judge ruled late Friday.

Following a testy three-hour hearing earlier in the day, Federal District Judge Xavier Rodriguez temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the rule against Harris County’s election administrator until the rest of a lawsuit plays out. Although the scope of Rodriguez’s preliminary injunction is limited, the judge dealt the first legal blow to new elections restrictions and voting changes Republican lawmakers enacted last year.

The injunction applies to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and local county prosecutors in Harris, Travis and Williamson counties.

The state is expected to quickly appeal the ruling. The lawsuit was brought by Harris County election administrator Isabel Longoria and Cathy Morgan, a volunteer deputy registrar who is appointed to help register voters in Travis and Williamson counties.

Feb. 18 is the last day for counties to receive applications for mail-in ballots for the March 1 primary.

Rodriguez previewed his order throughout a Friday morning hearing during which he repeatedly pressed the state’s attorneys — with increasing exasperation — to fill in what he cataloged as ambiguities in the new law. The challenged provision makes it a state jail felony for election officials to “solicit the submission” of an application to vote by mail if the voter did not request it.

Rodriguez took particular issue with the lack of a clear definition for what constitutes soliciting when talking to voters, even those 65 and older who automatically qualify to vote by mail under the state’s strict rules.

“It has a chilling effect,” Rodriguez said while questioning a state attorney Friday morning. “They don’t know when they’re going to run afoul of this vague [law].”

His comments followed testimony from Longoria and Morgan, who said they feared the civil and criminal penalties that could come from violating the broad prohibition.

Longoria said her office was now taking a “passive” approach to voter outreach in regard to voting by mail, with staffers “gingerly” weighing their words while answering voters’ questions about their options.

“When it comes to voting by mail, I have to be very careful with my words,” Longoria said from the witness stand. “I stop mid-sentence sometimes at town halls. … I’m tentative to overreach at the moment.”

Morgan testified that she was concerned the law applied even to volunteers like her, given that her role is formally certified by county election offices. She offered examples of voters she no longer felt she could help navigate the vote-by-mail process. That included an 88-year-old voter whom Morgan would typically call at the start of every year to remind her that she has to reapply for mail-in ballots.

State attorneys said that the law did not apply to volunteers like Morgan and argued the government can prohibit interactions between local election officials and voters without running afoul of the First Amendment.

They also repeatedly argued Longoria and Morgan could not prove they were facing an explicit threat of prosecution to justify the preliminary injunction. Under Senate Bill 1, officials who violate the prohibition on soliciting mail-in ballots face a state jail felony, which can be punishable by a minimum of 180 days in jail and fines up to $10,000.

Sean Morales-Doyle, an attorney for the plaintiffs, countered that an explicit threat of prosecution was not necessary because laws are also created to deter specific actions.

“The law is on the books for that purpose,” said Morales-Doyle, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice.

And even the state’s witness — Keith Ingram, the Texas secretary of state’s director of elections — indicated the threat of prosecution loomed over election officials. While Ingram was on the stand, Rodriguez presented him with hypothetical interactions between Longoria and voters, asking if she could recommend voting by mail to someone who appeared to qualify.

“I would be very careful about that,” Ingram responded. “You wouldn’t want to recommend” voting by mail as an option “because you’d be worried about prosecution,” he said.

Throughout the hearing, Rodriguez also pressed for the reasoning behind the anti-solicitation provision, interrupting the state’s questioning of Ingram in search of an answer. Ingram said he didn’t know the purpose of the provision.

Eventually, Will Thompson of the Texas attorney general’s office told Rodriguez that the provision was meant to limit “official encouragement” of voting by mail, indicating the state preferred people vote in person even if they qualify to vote by mail.

“We’re not taking the position that the Legislature is opposed to voting by mail,” Thompson said. “That doesn’t mean the Legislature wants resources to be used toward nudging people toward voting by mail.”

The anti-solicitation rule is part of the far-reaching voting law, enacted last year by Republican lawmakers who championed it as a measure needed to ensure the integrity of Texas elections — even though there are no widespread issues with elections in the state. SB 1 contains an array of new restrictions on the state’s voting process and narrows local control of elections.

The Harris County lawsuit is just one in a heap of challenges to the election law. The expansive fight against the law includes civil rights groups and community organizations that advocate for voters of color and voters with disabilities who argue the law discriminates against those voters. The U.S. Department of Justice joined those plaintiffs with its own lawsuit last year, targeting new restrictions on mail-in ballots and voter assistance.

Those cases are expected to go to trial later this year.

Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/11/texas-voting-law-mail-in-ballots-ruling/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Hundreds of mail-in ballots are being returned to Texas voters because they don’t comply with new voting law

Stricter voting rules enacted by Republican lawmakers last year continue to foil Texans trying to vote by mail in the upcoming primary, with hundreds of completed ballots being initially rejected for not meeting the state’s new identification requirements.

The bulk of mail-in ballots have yet to arrive at elections offices, but local officials are already reporting that a significant number are coming in without the newly required ID information. As of Wednesday, election officials in Harris County alone had flagged 1,360 mail-in ballots to be sent back to voters — 40% of the mail-in ballots returned up to that point — because they lacked an ID number.

Under the state’s new rules, officials cannot accept ballots without the ID information on the return envelopes containing the ballot and must mail them back if there’s enough time for the voter to send back a corrected envelope.

“We’ll see how many we get back,” said Isabel Longoria, the Harris County elections administrator. “That’s our big question mark right now: Are voters going to go through the extra step to correct it?”

The new ID requirements are the earliest rule changes to kick in under the law that Republican lawmakers enacted last year to further tighten voting procedures in the state. The law, known as SB 1, ratchets up the state’s already strict rules for voting by mail by requiring absentee voters to include a state identification number like a driver’s license number, or — if they don’t have a driver’s license — a partial Social Security number, both when requesting a mail-in ballot and when returning a completed ballot.

Those numbers must match information in a voter’s record for ballot requests to be accepted and votes to be counted.

The new ID rules have already prompted hundreds of rejected ballot requests, often because voters did not provide any ID numbers at all. But even counties that saw few request rejections are now grappling with high rates of faulty ballots.

That includes Hays County, where about 30% of the voters who had already returned their mail-in ballots had not filled out the ID requirement. Those are early figures, as ballots are only starting to trickle in, so Jennifer Anderson, the county’s elections administrator, is hoping voter outreach efforts will help curb more errors.

“We usually have a very low rejection rate so it’s not something we want to see in Hays County,” Anderson said.

Other suburban counties are seeing similar rates. Election officials in Williamson County said about 30% of completed ballots were missing ID numbers.

The ID requirements forced a redesign of the carrier envelopes used to return mail-in ballots, allowing them to be sealed in a way that protects a voter’s sensitive information while traveling through the mail. The ID field was placed under the envelope flap. But based on early figures, local election officials this week said they feared voters were missing it altogether.

The voting law allows for a correction process, but local election officials and voters are facing a time crunch.

Defective ballots must be sent back to voters if they arrive early enough to be sent back and corrected. If officials determine there’s not enough time, they must notify the voter by phone or email. Voters must then visit the elections office in person to correct the issue, or use the state’s new online ballot tracker to verify the missing information.

Those determinations are made by panels of election workers responsible for qualifying mail-in ballots. The Texas secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections, has advised counties to convene those panels as early as possible to give voters the maximum amount of time to make a correction.

“Obviously the main concern, I think, with most election officials is that people that receive ballots by mail may not have the ability to come to the clerk’s office,” said Heather Hawthorne, the county clerk of Chambers County.

The smaller county east of Houston hasn’t seen ID issues “in extremely high numbers,” but Hawthorne knows the importance of giving absentee voters enough time to safeguard their votes.

In Texas, only a sliver of the electorate is allowed to vote by mail, but absentee voting is often used by people for whom voting in person can be a challenge, including Texans with disabilities.

Only voters who are 65 or older automatically qualify for a mail-in ballot. Otherwise, voters must qualify under a limited set of reasons, including absence from the county during the election period or a disability or illness that would keep them from voting in person without needing help or that makes a trip to the polls risky to their health.

But the deluge of mail-in ballots won’t come in until closer to deadline. Voters have until election day — March 1 for the primary — to return their ballots.

Officials in larger counties are staffing up ahead of the rush — and a possible spike in defective ballots under the new rules.

Harris County, home to Houston, has doubled the number of workers managing its voter call center, and it’s scrambling to add more workers to its mail ballot team. It has increased the size of the panel of election workers who are qualifying mail-in ballots by 30%, and Longoria expects they’ll have to work double the number of days when the crush of ballots comes in.

As of Tuesday, Harris County had received only about 10% of the more than 27,000 mail-in ballots it had sent out to voters who requested them. (That number is expected to grow further because voters can request mail-in ballots up until Feb. 18.)

El Paso County’s elections administrator Lisa Wise said the county is almost doubling the size of its review panel, which may have to add hours or days to its working schedule. The county had not yet started processing completed mail-in ballots as of Wednesday.

Elections workers were still working through hundreds of applications for mail-in ballots that were missing ID numbers.

Disclosure: The Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/10/texas-mail-voting-rejections/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Dan Crenshaw sends mail-in ballot applications to voters after Texas banned the practice for local election officials

U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, is taking heat this week for sending out campaign mailers containing unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to voters who are 65 and older.

Last year, Texas Republicans in the Legislature passed an elections law that banned local election officials from that very same practice under the banner of protecting election integrity. However, the law made an exception for candidates and political parties to continue the practice, which has long been a popular get-out-the-vote tactic typically employed by both parties, but especially by Republicans.

Democrats this week said Crenshaw’s mailer highlights hypocrisy in the new voting law and shows that Republicans who railed against vote-by-mail expansion efforts last year were only concerned about the ways it could benefit Democrats. Crenshaw’s mailer includes a prefilled mail-in application and instructions that tell the recipient to “simply sign, stamp, and mail” it and to “be sure to vote for Dan Crenshaw” when the ballot comes.

“The hypocrisy here is absurd,” said Chris Hollins, the former Harris County Clerk, who inspired the provision in the Texas legislation because of a hotly contested plan to send mail-in ballot applications to all of the county’s registered voters during the pandemic. “Voting by mail is a safe way that is utilized for people to exercise their right to vote. … We should be promoting the right to vote by mail for all those who are eligible, not making it illegal to inform voters of their right.”

The Texas voting law — which Republicans passed after Democrats walked out on bill negotiations twice — contains several measures that restrict the expansion of voting by mail, in addition to banning 24-hour early voting and drive-thru voting. The law, which went into effect last month, creates a state jail felony penalty for local election officials — but not politicians or other third parties in the voting process — who send applications for mail-in ballots to voters who don’t request them.

Justin Discigil, Crenshaw’s campaign spokesperson, said sending unsolicited applications is normal practice, and the campaign did it in 2020. Asked how Crenshaw’s support of mail-in voting for candidates squares with the new Texas law, Discigil distanced Crenshaw from the Texas Legislature.

“That was a state Legislature decision. …” Discigil said. “Dan did not write the bill.”

But Crenshaw has been a strong supporter of the voting law, defending it on Twitter and criticizing Democrats who have characterized it and similar rules in other states as voter suppression.

In a 2020 interview with The Texas Tribune, Crenshaw likened expansion of voting by mail to “playing with fire” and said that it could increase voter fraud, raising concerns about states such as Nevada that have more expanded mail-in ballot options than Texas.

Discigil said Crenshaw’s criticism of mail-in ballots applies to states other than Texas that provide insufficient safeguards for voter integrity. Crenshaw said during the interview that the mail-in ballot process in Texas — which requires identification and an application for the absentee option — was fine.

Crenshaw’s 2020 comments came at a time when Texas Republican leadership resisted expanding vote-by-mail eligibility during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people sought to vote through absentee and nontraditional methods more than normal.

State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, a co-sponsor of the GOP elections bill, defended the use of politicians sending applications for mail-in ballots despite making it illegal for local officials to do the same.

“It is my understanding that rural counties did not and do not have the resources to send out unsolicited applications,” Cain said. “That section helps bring equity and uniformity to our election laws.”

Cain did not respond to a follow-up question about whether the provision addressed voter fraud, which Republicans said the law would prevent during the debate over its passing. There has been no evidence nationwide or in Texas of widespread voter fraud.

The law’s restriction on sending unsolicited applications takes aim at an initiative spearheaded in 2020 by Hollins, whose plan to send mail-in ballot applications to all of the 2.4 million registered voters in his jurisdiction during the pandemic was stopped by the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court.

Hollins said he believes the law targets election officials — especially those in large cities — since they’ve increasingly invested in efforts to increase voter turnout, which favors Democrats in urban areas.

“They’ve done the math, and they’ve determined that in those larger cities and counties, the votes are less likely to go their way,” Hollins said. “Every single thing that they’re doing is not about American democracy.”

As Texas heads into primary election season, local election officials have rejected hundreds of mail-in ballot applications because the new law requires a state identification number, like a driver’s license or a partial Social Security number, on the form. These numbers must match information in the state voter registry, or the application can be rejected.

State Rep. Jessica González, a Democrat from Dallas and vice chair of the House Committee on Elections, also said Crenshaw’s use of the mailers was hypocritical, especially since he has supported former President Donald Trump, who falsely claimed that mail-in ballots were less secure than voting in person.

“This shows that they don’t want Democrats to vote,” González said, noting that allowing local elections officials to send mail-in ballot applications to registered voters doesn’t target one party over another. “They’re not basing that off of what political party you belong to. When you allow elected officials or candidates to do that, they only want to be able to target people from their party.”

González, one of the Democrats who fled to Washington, D.C., during this year’s Legislative sessions to block passage of the bill, said this provision of the new law particularly impacts Texans who have disabilities or may not otherwise know about their voting options.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/01/26/dan-crenshaw-texas-mail-in-ballot-voting-law/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Retiring Republican: Texas violated voting rights law during redistricting

EL PASO — In a sworn declaration submitted as part of an ongoing federal court challenge, a senior Republican state senator with redistricting experience said he believes his party violated federal voting laws when it drew new boundaries for state Senate District 10 in the Fort Worth area.

“Having participated in the 2011 and 2013 Senate Select Redistricting Committee proceedings, and having read the prior federal court decision regarding SD10, it was obvious to me that the renewed effort to dismantle SD 10 violated the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution,” state Sen. Kel Seligersaid in a declaration signed in November.

The statement from the Amarillo Republican emerged this week as part of a dayslong hearing before a three-judge panel considering a lawsuit that claims the district was intentionally reconfigured to discriminate against voters of color in Tarrant County.

Under the map passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, some Black and Hispanic populations previously in District 10 were split into two other districts with majority-white electorates. The Black and Hispanic voters who remain in the newly drawn District 10, in urban areas of south Fort Worth, were lumped in with several rural, mostly white counties to the south and west that drive up the district’s population of white eligible voters while diminishing the number of voters of color.

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A group of plaintiffs — including state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, who represents the current SD-10 — is asking the federal judges to throw out the new district ahead of the March primaries.

Seliger chaired the Senate’s redistricting committee last decade, redrawing the state’s maps following the 2010 census when a similar attempt to reshape the district was found to be discriminatory. A federal court in Washington, D.C., ruled in 2012 that lawmakers had discriminated against voters of color in dismantling the district and cracking apart their communities. As a result, the Legislature went back to restore the district’s configuration.

Seliger affirmed his declaration in a video deposition taken earlier this month — portions of which were played in open court in El Paso this week — during which he also said that “pretextual reasons” were given for how political boundaries were decided during the 2021 redistricting process.

Seliger pointed to the redrawing of his own district in the Texas Panhandle as an example. The district was reconfigured so that it lost several counties from the region while picking up about a dozen on the southern end of the district, closer to Midland, from where Seliger had picked up a primary challenger. He ultimately decided against seeking reelection.

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The chamber’s chief map-drawer, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said throughout the process that the maps were drawn “race-blind” while following various guidelines, such as preserving political subdivisions, communities of interest and geographic compactness.

Beyond the challenge to SD-10, the state is defending the Legislature’s redistricting work against a collection of legal challenges to its new maps for the state House and Senate and for Congress.

The Legislature passed maps last year that solidified the GOP’s dominance while weakening the influence of voters of color. None of the maps offer Hispanic Texans new opportunities to turn their growing numbers into political power, even though they were behind half of the state’s growth in the last decade.

The federal lawsuits are built on allegations that lawmakers discriminated — in some cases intentionally — against voters of color by diminishing the power of their votes. The challenge to SD-10 is running ahead of the various challenges to the House and Congressional maps, which are not set to go to trial until the fall.

On Wednesday, Seliger told The Texas Tribune that his statement about the illegality of SD-10 was “more of a concern than it was an assertion” of whether there was a violation.

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“When you draw a map that essentially takes out minorities or, in what was more the point, take out the chance that there would ever be a Democrat elected there, was there a violation?” Seliger said. “It’s not an assertion on my part because I'm not a constitutional lawyer, but that was my concern about Sen. Powell’s district — to take that district and completely change it and it still marginalized minorities in that district.”

He added that there was a “context” surrounding the drawing of SD-10 — even as Huffman asserted she had not paid any attention to racial data in drawing its boundaries — that requires lawmakers to consider race.

“The Voting Rights Act says if you can create a district in which a historically marginalized minority can elect a candidate of their choice, you must draw that district,” Seliger said. “You start with that principle in every single district.”

As part of his deposition, Seliger indicated that he had not authored the declaration in question, which he signed under penalty of perjury. Instead, it had been provided to him by Powell. Still, he said he stood by the statements that were included.

“Is everything exactly the way I would have written it? I can’t tell you that. I doubt it, but it was perfectly acceptable,” Seliger said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/01/26/texas-redistricting-kel-seliger-redistricting/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas appears to be paying a secretive Republican political operative $120,000 annually to work behind the scenes on redistricting

A Republican redistricting operative whose clandestine work helped drag Wisconsin into a legal morass last decade appears to now be on the payroll of the Texas Legislature as lawmakers work to redraw maps that will determine the distribution of political power for years to come.

The operative, Adam Foltz, was part of the team that helped craft Wisconsin's legislative maps after Republicans took control of that state Legislature in 2010. Foltz played a key role in a tight-lipped and questionable redrawing process that shut out Democrats and drew the condemnation of federal judges who described it as "needlessly secret," according to court records.

Foltz may now be playing a behind-the-scenes role in Texas. The Capitol's internal staff directory, to which The Texas Tribune obtained access, shows Foltz is working for the House Redistricting Committee. His office and phone number in that directory match those of the committee's staff office in the Capitol basement, but at least one Democrat on the committee said they had not been advised of his involvement. Foltz has not been a visible part of the committee's public-facing work.

Though Foltz is assigned to the House Redistricting Committee, state employment records show that Foltz is actually on the payroll of the Texas Legislative Council, a nonpartisan state agency that supports the Legislature in drafting and analyzing proposed legislation — and manages the internal mapping tool lawmakers use to redraw political maps. During the redistricting process, the council also plays a crucial role in providing demographic and election results for lawmakers' proposed maps.

Records show Foltz was hired by the agency under the title of "legislative professional" on May 17 at a $120,000 annual salary. But Kimberly Shields, the council's assistant executive director, said in an email that Foltz reports to state Rep. Todd Hunter, the Corpus Christi Republican who chairs the redistricting committee.

"While Mr. Foltz is on the legislative council payroll, he is considered an employee of the House Redistricting Committee, and his hiring and duties are entirely within the purview of Chairman Hunter," Shields said in an email. "The council provides support on request to the house and senate in many situations, including occasionally covering the salary of a staff member. We don't have any other committee employees on our payroll."

Hunter did not respond to questions about Foltz's involvement in the mapping process.

"The work of redistricting is never easy, but I am fully committed to a fair process and I look forward to working with my fellow members of this committee on the task at hand," Hunter said in a February statement when he was first appointed to chair the committee by House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont.

A request for comment to the staff email assigned to Foltz also went unanswered. A spokesperson for Phelan declined to comment and referred questions to Hunter.

Texas lawmakers are currently in session in Austin to redraw the state's legislative and congressional maps to reflect a decade's worth of population growth. The census showed people of color were behind 95% of the state's growth since 2010 — about 4 million new residents — with Hispanic Texans responsible for half of that growth.

The redistricting process has always been complex and contentious in Texas, requiring repeated federal intervention to protect Hispanic and Black voters. In each of the last four redistricting cycles, either a federal court or the U.S. Department of Justice determined that Texas did not comply with federal protections for those voters. This year's effort will mark the first time in decades that Texas lawmakers — Republicans are again in full control of the process — will be allowed to redraw maps without the federal supervision that prevented states with discriminatory track records from enacting new maps until they were reviewed to ensure they didn't pull back on the voting rights of people of color.

Foltz's involvement in Wisconsin's 2011 redistricting was shrouded in controversy. He was hired as a staff member for the Speaker of the Assembly to help redraw the state's maps following the 2010 census. Though he was an aide to the speaker, Foltz and another staffer worked out of a law firm that was also brought on to help with the process.

He held meetings there under what a federal court called a "cloak of secrecy" with every Republican member of the State Assembly — but no Democrats — who were each required to sign confidentiality agreements that bound them from discussing what was said. Despite Republican efforts to keep them secret, documents released during the litigation over the maps Foltz helped draw showed that he was also asked to help witnesses prepare their public testimony in support of them.

A federal court that considered the state's maps eventually found violations of the Voting Rights Act in two assembly districts where map drawers improperly diluted the vote of Latinos. In that ruling, the court said the drafting of the maps was "needlessly secret, regrettably excluding input from the overwhelming majority of Wisconsin citizens."

As the case dragged on over legal squabbles about emails Republicans had not initially turned over, the court criticized the secretive process in which Foltz was involved while he worked on the maps from the offices of the private law firm.

"Without a doubt, the Legislature made a conscious choice to involve private lawyers in what gives every appearance of an attempt — albeit poorly disguised — to cloak the private machinations of Wisconsin's Republican legislators in the shroud of attorney-client privilege," the court said in a 2012 ruling. "What could have — indeed should have — been accomplished publicly instead took place in private, in an all but shameful attempt to hide the redistricting process from public scrutiny."

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In a changing Texas, Republicans will begin redistricting with more freedom to draw their maps

The 2020 census captured a Texas that does not exist in its halls of power: a diverse state that is growing almost exclusively because of people of color and where the Hispanic and white populations are nearly equal in size.

But when the Texas Legislature convenes Monday to do the work of incorporating a decade's worth of population growth into new political maps, the Republicans in charge — nearly all of whom are white — will have a freer hand to cement their power and try to shield themselves from the change that growth represents.

The 2021 redistricting cycle will mark the first time in nearly half a century that a Legislature with a lengthy record of discriminating against voters of color will be able to redraw political districts without federal oversight designed to keep harmful maps from immediately going into effect.

And now, once those maps are enacted, the voters of color and civil rights groups that for decades have fought discrimination in the courts may face a federal judiciary less willing to doubt lawmakers' partisan motivations — even if they come at the expense of Hispanic and Black Texans.

"I hate to be an alarmist. I want to look for the silver lining, but I don't see one," said Jose Garza, a veteran civil rights attorney who has represented the Texas House's Mexican American Legislative Caucus for a decade. "I think that this is a time of great opportunity for the Republicans."

The Legislature's work during this month's special legislative session will include the complex and contentious process of redrawing maps for Congress, the Texas House, the Texas Senate and the State Board of Education to evenly distribute the state's fast-growing population. On the congressional front, lawmakers must also reconfigure the map to incorporate the two additional districts the state earned because of its growth.

Like most other states, Texas leaves this task to the same lawmakers whose individual electoral survival and collective political dominance depend on how district boundaries are set up.

Former President Donald Trump claimed 52% of the vote in last year's election, but Republicans hold 64% of the state's seats in Congress, 58% of seats in the Texas Senate and 55% of seats in the Texas House. The GOP, however, is facing demographic changes that fundamentally work against the party's efforts to maintain or even bolster its majorities in the statehouse and in the state's congressional delegation.

Republicans disproportionately rely on white voters to elect them, but people of color were behind 95% of the state's population growth since 2010. Hispanic Texans alone were responsible for half of that increase. And the 2020 census found that the Hispanic population — 39.3% of the total population — was nearly equal in size to the non-Hispanic white population, which makes up 39.8%.

What's more, population growth over the last decade was largely concentrated in areas where Republicans are faltering. The state's suburbs, many of which have turned blue in recent years or are trending in that direction, grew the fastest. Meanwhile, the state's five most populous counties — Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Travis and Tarrant — became home to roughly 44% of the state's 4 million new residents. Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Travis are decisively blue counties. Tarrant, which is historically red but voted Democratic at the top of the ticket in 2018 and 2020, actually saw its white population decrease by more than 30,000 in the last decade.

Despite the challenging demographic landscape, the U.S. Supreme Court paved an easier road to Republican dominance with two highly consequential rulings in the last decade.

In 2013, the high court scrapped the federal Voting Rights Act's long-standing safeguard, known as preclearance, that prevented states with discriminatory track records like Texas from enacting new voting rules or maps without first getting federal approval to ensure that they didn't pull back on the voting rights of people of color. Years later, the court also ruled that federal judges cannot limit partisan gerrymandering, giving lawmakers even more freedom to justify extreme revisions to their maps by citing political motives.

"They've got a shield that they can discriminate against [people of color] and say it's all about partisanship and there's not going to be any review from Washington, D.C., on what they do," Garza said. "They have this great strength because they control all the seats of power and don't have [preclearance], but they also have this sense of desperation because so many of their districts are severely underpopulated. I think that's a formula for disaster for the minority community and for Democrats."

During the last redistricting cycle, Republicans defended their maps by arguing that they were drawn based on partisan advantage, rather than race. But federal judges eventually ruled that lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Hispanic and Black voters by giving them less say in choosing who represents them in the Texas House and in Congress. In districts where lawmakers supposedly used race in the name of complying with the Voting Rights Act, which is allowed, the judges found they instead "turned the VRA on its head" by unnecessarily crowding Hispanic voters into certain districts.

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For decades and in that round of mapmaking, preclearance — which was granted by the U.S. Department of Justice or a Washington federal court — served as a critical safeguard to political redistricting in a state with a tradition of suppressing Hispanic and Black voters by blocking the Legislature's initial maps from being used.

Under that regime, the Department of Justice lodged objections to Texas' maps at least eight times in less than three decades. In total, the department objected to 207 voting changes made in Texas in that time period — more than in any other state subject to preclearance.

The last time a Washington federal court refused to clear the Legislature's maps in 2012, it noted the case against the state included "more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address here."

Republicans in charge of the process in the House and Senate, whose offices did not respond to interview requests for this article, have so far said they are taking a transparent and cordial approach to what's often a contentious process.

"As you know, the legal issues around redistricting are complex and continually evolving," state Sen. Joan Huffman recently told other senators on the chamber's redistricting committee, which she chairs. "Please know that I continue to be committed to a fair, transparent and legal process, and I encourage participation and input from each of you as we work together toward this goal."

When he was appointed to chair the House's committee, state Rep. Todd Hunter acknowledged in a statement that redistricting "is never easy" but promised he was "fully committed to a fair process."

But since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Texas has not made it through a single decade without a federal court ruling that it violated that federal law or the U.S. Constitution and ordering it to correct its legal mistakes.

"Certainly is it the case that the Legislature has demonstrated it has zero institutional memory when it comes to redistricting — and that could be a willful ignorance on its part," said Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who has challenged the state's maps in the last two redistricting cycles. "If the past can tell us anything about the future, it would be that Texas turns a blind eye to the court rulings of the past that found discrimination."

Though lawmakers this year will be deciphering how the future of representation and political control will shape up, the echoes of legislative work from a decade ago are ringing loudly. Ten years ago, Republicans also controlled the entire process, had a roster of nearly all white lawmakers and were confronting census numbers that showed people of color had accounted for nearly all of the state's population gains.

At a committee hearing in 2011, a lawmaker asked Perales what lawmakers should keep in mind in that year's redistricting effort given the state's previous missteps. The lesson, she told them at the time, is that we should not repeat past mistakes.

Those dynamics are reverberating so profoundly that Perales unintentionally quoted herself in imploring today's lawmakers to not extend the state's long-running practice of violating the voting rights of people of color in redistricting.

"Redistricting plans should avoid the mistakes of the past," Perales told the Texas Senate's committee on redistricting in a public hearing last week.

As in 2011, this year's deliberations will be backdropped by months of debates over whether the Legislature is sufficiently acknowledging the different lived realities of Texans based on their race.

A decade ago, lawmakers were fighting over Republican legislation to allow law enforcement to ask about the immigration status of people they detained, as well as a new stringent voter ID law that was later found to have discriminated against Hispanic and Black voters. Democrats repeatedly warned those proposals would disproportionately burden people of color; Republicans dismissed those concerns.

This spring, the regular legislative session was dominated by clashes over legislation to restrict how the legacy of racism can be taught in Texas schools, plus sweeping legislation to create new restrictions on voting that Democrats said would raise new barriers for marginalized voters, especially voters of color.

Debates on the former featured tense exchanges between Democrats of color and white Republicans who appeared to reject the idea that some of the country's founding principles, including the three-fifths clause of the U.S. Constitution, were racist, instead describing slavery as a "deviation" from those principles.

At one point, House Speaker Dade Phelan asked lawmakers to avoid even using the word "racism" during a floor debate on the voting bill.

"The level of anti-minority legislation that came out of this session of the Legislature, in my mind, far exceeds anything we've seen in recent memory," said Gary Bledsoe, the longtime president of the Texas chapter of the NAACP, which has previously challenged the state's redistricting work. "This session is a throwback. It seems like the idea of turning back the hands of time to go back to another era seems to be motivating individuals."

With redistricting up next on the docket, Bledsoe said he anticipated for the state's new maps to be built on the suppressed votes he believes will result from the state's new voting restrictions.

"All of this works together," Bledsoe said. "All that fits hand in hand so when you come out with marginal seats or seats that may be more at risk because you're trying to take too many seats, that gives you your chance."