Texas legislators approved new lines for statewide and congressional districts in mid-October, and Harris and Galveston counties have since made similar changes to commissioner precinct boundaries, affecting both the racial makeup of districts and precincts as well as who represents voters.

Citizens of what was formerly Precinct 3 in Galveston County, which includes the Bay Area, will now be part of different precincts, Precinct 3 Commissioner Stephen Holmes said. The new maps put some of eastern League City in Precinct 3.

Changes like this mean commissioners in other precincts face a learning curve, he said.

“A lot of the areas that are now represented by other commissioners, [the commissioners are] now unfamiliar with these areas,” Holmes said.

In Harris County, Precinct 2’s boundaries were redrawn in a way that unites Friendswood with Clear Lake, connecting communities with similar interests, Precinct 2 staff said. I-45 previously served as a boundary line between precincts 2 and 3, but Precinct 2 now extends west of I-45. Both Texas House and Senate districts remain mostly unchanged for the Bay Area.

Shifting demographics

Between 2010-20, roughly 95% of population growth in Texas was driven by people of color, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That population growth resulted in two new congressional districts for the state for a total of 38 districts.

However, when looking at citizen voting-age populations, the number of congressional districts with white majorities across the state increased by one under the new maps from 22 to 23. At the same time, the number of districts with Hispanic majorities and Black majorities both fell by one, and the number of districts with no racial majority grew by three, according to the Texas Legislative Council.

Michael Li, a redistricting expert with the nonprofit law and policy institute Brennan Center for Justice, said the trends raise questions about potential Voting Rights Act violations.

“The real question is: Are there more opportunities for the minority communities that provided most of the state’s growth?” Li said. “There doesn’t seem to be, and that raises a lot of red flags about potential discrimination.”

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who served as the chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee, defended the maps at several public hearings held throughout the process and said they comply with the Voting Rights Act.

“We drew these maps race blind,” Huffman said at a September public hearing on the maps. “We have not looked at any racial data as we drew these maps.”

The U.S. Department of Justice, however, announced Dec. 6 it is suing the state of Texas over the maps. The suit alleges the Texas Legislature redrew the maps to reduce voters of colors’ influence on elections. The complaint states this violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

History in the courts

Redistricting was tackled as part of a third special session of the Texas Legislature called by Gov. Greg Abbott. The session ran through Oct. 19, when the new maps were finalized.

According to the state’s redistricting website, two requirements for the process are that districts must have as close to equal population as possible and districts cannot limit voting based on race, color or language group. Under the U.S. Constitution, lines must be redrawn every decennial census.

Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston and former redistricting adviser to the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said the process allows for redistricting committees to “crack” or “pack” populations, giving parties more control.

“We’re the only state that gained two seats in the country,” he said. “There’s immense pressure [on Republican lawmakers] to do something.”

One change to this year’s process was removing preclearance, which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2013. Part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, preclearance required states with a history of racial discrimination to submit plans to the federal government for approval.

“There’s nothing that prevents Texas from being as aggressive and discriminatory as it wants and basically daring people to go to court to get the maps struck down,” Li said. “It is a critical piece of protection that is gone now.”

While the Texas House and Texas Senate boundaries also shifted, they did not affect the Bay Area’s state representation.

The 22nd Congressional District, which includes Nassau Bay, Webster and Seabrook, which is served by Republican U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls, had a 62% nonwhite voting-age population under the old maps and is now 55% nonwhite, according to the Texas Legislative Council. Likewise, Republican U.S. Rep. Randy Weber’s 14th District, which includes League City, Clear Lake Shores and Kemah, went from 49% to 44% nonwhite voters.

Patrizio Amezcua, a government professor at San Jacinto College in Pasadena, said demographic shifts could be effects of Republican gerrymandering and state legislators doing what they can to ensure their re-elections.

“It’s almost a way for elected officials to pick their voters rather than the other way around,” he said. “This is not a new phenomenon.”

Similarly, Amezcua said Democrats are doing the same thing at the local level, such as in Harris County Commissioners Court. On Nov. 16, two Republican Harris County commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, filed a lawsuit against the county seeking injunctive relief in the 270th District Court. Judge Dedra Davis set a date for Dec. 17, which was press time, to hear arguments over an injunction.

County changes

As officials adjusted congressional and other districts at the state level, local commissioners did the same for county precincts. The new maps will be in effect for the March primaries.

In Harris County Precinct 2, which includes Clear Lake, Commissioner Adrian Garcia said the redistricting will benefit Friendswood and Clear Lake residents alike. Community members in the two areas have similar wants and needs to each other, so Precinct 2’s principal goal with the redistricting process was to reunite these communities of interest, Garcia and Press Secretary Scott Spiegel said.

Garcia and Spiegel said residents had anecdotally expressed that the old boundaries divided people via impractical barriers such as freeways, in this case I-45. Precinct 2 staff will focus now on creating seamless transitions, both with communicating election information to new constituents and with transferring public works or other projects.

Part of the transition process entails making sure precinct leaders are able to respect commitments to their constituents in terms of executing projects, Garcia said. In this area, for example, flooding victims advocate for more drainage projects, and their voices need to be heard by their new commissioner, he said.

Garcia has been in conversation with Pearland’s mayor as part of this process already, he added.

“[Precinct 2 constituents] can expect a county commissioner that is going to represent every segment of [their] precinct as effectively as possible to ensure that we’re going to continue to support their wants, their desires, their concerns,” Garcia said.

Galveston County commissioners approved new boundaries in mid-November. Precinct 3 moved from the center and southern part of the county to the northwest near Pearland with Precinct 4.

Another map option commissioners considered would have altered the precinct boundaries far less and kept Precinct 4 Commissioner Ken Clark’s and other commissioners’ representation largely the same.

Still, Clark said he prefers the map the county went with because it is cleaner with more equal populations between precincts. Before, the total population between precincts ranged from 86,502 to 95,275; now, the margin is closer with precinct populations ranging from 87,185 to 88,111, according to the county’s redistricting data.

“I think it’s an important process because it balances out [the population],” he said of redistricting.

Holmes, however, said the new maps are discriminatory because they dilute the Black and Hispanic vote. Every county precinct now has a clear white majority in its voting body, he said.

Prior to the reconfiguration, Precinct 3 was split evenly between Black, Hispanic and white voters; now Black and Hispanic voters make up a significantly smaller portion of the voting body compared to their white counterparts in Precinct 3, he said.

This is a cause for concern based on the county’s nonwhite population growth, Holmes said. While the 2020 census showed white populations have decreased across the United States since 2010, Galveston County was one of several dozen exceptions.

The percentage of county residents identifying as multiracial—two or more races—increased by nearly sixfold: another nearly 40,000 people identified as multiracial in 2020 compared to 2010. The county grew from about 291,000 people in 2010 to nearly 351,000 in 2020.

Amezcua said elected officials have a personal stake in ensuring their re-election, which factors into redrawing of boundaries.

While many residents whom Holmes used to serve will no longer be represented by him, he said since they are used to seeking him out, he will do whatever he can for them if they call.

“They’re still accustomed to calling on me,” he said. “I’m still going to do whatever they ask me to do.”

Shawn Arrajj, Jishnu Nair and Kelly Schafler contributed to this report.