Harris County Redistricting: Latinos Losing Their Only Seat?

by Dr. Reynaldo Guerra

First things first.  Harris County released its version of a redistricting map on July 11 (cue dramatic music).  Why is that so significant?  The one-sentence answer is this: The map, if it passes, will eliminate the only precinct on the Harris County Commissioners Court in which the Latino community has an opportunity to participate in the political process or to elect a representative of its choice.  I almost want to apologize for the somewhat muddled way I worded that last sentence, but the verbiage comes directly from an extremely important federal law that the proposed map violates:  The 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The first two sections of this article (Texas House Cleaning and Harris County Commissioners Court) are background information.  I get into the specifics of how the proposed map is in direct violation of the law beginning in the Harris County’s Proposed Redistricting Map.

Texas House Cleaning

US Census numbers were released late last year and local governments have been redistricting (redrawing election boundary lines) all over the country.  If you’ve been following redistricting across the State, Harris County’s actions shouldn’t surprise you.  Redistricting on every level, from congressional to the state legislature to cities across Texas, has acted to not only seriously dilute the voting strength of Latinos, but to retrogress us as a Latino community, to take away civil rights successes that we’ve worked so hard for, for so many years.  It seems Texas lawmakers are cleaning house, and throwing away as many Latino districts as possible.

Here locally, through coalition building and an open-minded mayor, the Latino community earned a hard-fought victory in City of Houston redistricting.  Unfortunately, given the demographics of the Commissioners Court, and the fact that the County’s proposed map is orders of magnitude more egregious than the City’s initial proposal, winning on the County level will be much more difficult.

Harris County Commissioners Court

Harris County is divided into 4 precincts.  Each precinct is headed by a County Commissioner.  Services provided by the Commissioners Court include road and bridge construction, health care, housing, social services, law enforcement, courts, homeland security, and parks.  Representing a quarter of Harris County, and with budgets in the millions of dollars, County Commissioners are some of the most powerful elected officials in the area.

Precinct 2 has effectively been a Latino precinct over the last decade, having been held by beloved Latina Commissioner Sylvia Garcia for 8 years until Jack Morman won in November 2010’s Republican sweep.

Harris County’s Proposed Redistricting Map

Several articles have been written since Harris County released its map.  Rick Casey does a nice job of generally summing up the problems with the proposed map from a Latino perspective here.  Greg Wythe dives into the citizen voting age population (CVAP) discussion here.  I’ll highlight some of their salient points and discuss how the proposed map violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

US Census numbers tell us that in the last 10 years, the Latino population in Harris county has grown from just over 1.1 million (33%) to approximately 1.7 million (41%) residents today.  The numbers also tell us that that Latino growth represents 80% of the overall population growth in Harris County.  Therefore, the demographics of Harris County, as they stand today, are 41% Latino, 33% Anglo, and 18% African-American.  Despite these numbers, Harris County has proposed a redistricting map that eliminates the only Latino precinct (Precinct 2) in the county.

Therefore, although the Anglo population only represents 33% of the County, they will control 75% of the County’s precincts.  This grossly misrepresents Harris County’s population, its population growth, and acts to retrogress the Latino community.

I’ll pause to let you catch your breath.

In the proposed map’s Precinct 2, although the Anglo voting age population (VAP) is 35.7% and the Latino VAP is 52.5%, these numbers are misleading.  To use redistricting jargon, the County’s proposed precinct is a ‘phantom precinct’, i.e. although it may appear so, the Latino community within the precinct does not have a reasonable opportunity to elect a commissioner of its choice.

Here’s why.  As Greg Wythe has shown, the CVAP numbers in the proposed Precinct 2 tell a much different story.  In the proposed Precinct 2, Anglos are 50% of the CVAP and Latinos are 38% of the CVAP.  Now, what makes a precinct a ‘Latino’ precinct?  This is a tough question, with no clear answer.  However, to borrow from one of my favorite country songs, I might not know what it is, but I know what it ain’t.  Given voting trends and bloc voting patterns, it is highly unlikely that the Latino community will ever elect a commissioner of its choice when the Anglo CVAP so far outnumbers the Latino CVAP.  Again, the proposed map clearly violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

A couple of more things to note. Dr. Richard Murray’s research at the University of Houston has shown that the Latino community has consistently voted in a cohesive bloc.  Now, it’s clear that partisan politics is dominating the Harris County decision-making process and is acting to break the bloc up.  Why else would a community like Kingwood be included in a precinct with a majority of Latinos and Aldine be excluded?  Including Kingwood not only acts to decrease the Latino population (and dilute voting strength) in Precinct 2, but it also increases the number of Republicans.  Aldine, a clearly Latino community is included in the African-American precinct.  Why?  Well, the first of four public hearings on the map is being held this Monday, July 25, in Pasadena (see full public hearings schedule below).  I urge you to ask them yourself.

You Can Make a Difference

This year has been a year of the Latino grass-roots resurrection in Texas.  Against prodigious Republican numbers in the Texas Legislature, and with over 70 anti-immigration, anti-Latino bills proposed at the beginning of session, grassroots/Latino organizations such as LULAC, MALDEF, RITA, and many others were instrumental in killing all of these bills with the exception of Voter ID.

Here locally, a group of over 40 organizations and their members united as a coalition to earn a victory in City of Houston redistricting.  The coalition included grassroots organizations like the Greater Houston Civic Coalition (GHCC), the Progresista Voting Bloc, and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service (TEJAS); professional organizations like the National Hispanic Professional Organization (NHPO) and the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; and even businesses like CounterPart Films.  Many of the elders in the Latino community are saying that they haven’t seen the local Latino community this united, with this much energy, in over 20 years.

Given the current makeup of Commissioners Court – with three Anglo Republicans and one African-American Democrat (perhaps our only advocate?), it is extremely unlikely that the Commissioners Court will be sympathetic.

It’s at this point that I hope you’re wondering if there is anything that you can do.  Well, it seems that if there is going to be victory for our community, it will be in the courts.  The public’s testimony is admissible in court, but only if it’s given at one of the four upcoming public hearings.  It is therefore vital the Latino community attends and is heard at these hearings.  Also, a group has been formed to organize the community.  Their information is below.

It’s a testament to the current times that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was recently extended, almost unanimously, under the Bush Administration.  However, even with the protection of the Voting Rights Act, the Latino community is still having to form coalitions and dog-fight for fair representation.  We deserve better than that.  A community that has been historically characterized as un-engaged recognizes this and has stepped forward with voices louder than have been heard in decades.  The energy and momentum can’t stop now.  Let our united voices be heard, they will listen.

For more information on efforts to save Precinct 2, Like our Facebook page:

Latinos: SOS! Facebook Page

or join our Google Group:

Latinos: SOS! Save Our Seat on Harris County Commissioners Court

Editor’s Note:  This post first appeared on SomosTejanos.org.

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