Created by Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) and titled “Ellis 3,” the approved map had not been made available to the public until late Wednesday evening, and few of those testifying during Thursday’s public meeting were aware of the map and what it entailed.
A previous map suggested by Ellis last week had sparked community outcry and harsh words from Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3), but Ellis’ third rendition went further in complicating conditions for Republicans in Harris County.
Under the “Ellis 3” map, precincts 3 and 4, both represented by Republicans, will swap the bulk of their geographic areas. Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) will represent the area that used to be Precinct 3. Ramsey will represent the area that used to be in Precinct 4.
Consequently, although the residents of the previous Precinct 3 elected Ramsey in 2020, they will now vote again in 2022 for a commissioner. County commissioners serve four year terms in staggered elections. Technically the incumbent is Cagle, although he has not represented this geographical area previously. Many residents who were previously in Precinct 4 will not have the opportunity to vote for a commissioner again until 2024, six years from the year they selected Cagle.
“To be candid, I thought [the Ellis 3 map] was a joke,” Cagle said during Thursday’s hearing. “In essence, you’re taking everybody that was in Precinct 4 and cramming them into Precinct 3, and you’re taking everyone who was in Precinct 3 and cramming them into Precinct 4.”
County Judge Lina Hidalgo dismissed Cagle’s concerns over services administered by each precinct since she said Democrats on the court would be working to consolidate more services under county-wide officials in the same way that many functions have now shifted to the county administrator.
She also scolded Republicans before casting her vote for the map saying, “I am concerned that your party is in a race to the bottom.”
“I know some folks see that [tax rate] discussion as a compromise, but I don’t. I feel that it was my hand was forced,” said Hidalgo. “It’s not logical to me why there had to be an even greater tax cut.”
Under the cut in rates adopted by commissioners last month, hospital district revenues will increase by less than $ 4 million, but Hidalgo had advocated for a much more significant increase and accused Cagle of wanting to cut hospital district revenues by $17 million.
“I haven’t forgotten that,” said Hidalgo.
“It was clear it was a vindictive act against the voters of precincts 3 and 4 to swap their precincts, to disenfranchise the precincts that they have been in historically merely because the county judge was offended that she was not able to raise taxes in the last cycle,” Cagle told The Texan.
In a written statement to The Texan, Ramsey also expressed disappointment that the court majority chose a map that would result in “unnecessary chaos.”
“Judge Hidalgo was clear in saying taxes were one of her deciding factors, and that is extremely concerning,” said Ramsey. “I’m also concerned about the court majority’s quick dismissal and lack of discussion regarding my question about whether or not our proposals meet requirements for Section 2 of the Voters Act — representing minority voters.”
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits vote dilution and vote deprivation on account of race, color, or language minorities. It is unclear as to whether the Ellis 3 map will draw legal challenges based on Hispanic and Asian population groups.
Although last week, Hidalgo expressed interest in a “Unity Map” proposed by a group called “Houston in Action” that sought to draw lines according to communities of interest, by Thursday, both Hidalgo and Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) seemed to have come to the hearing prepared to accept the most recent map proposed by Ellis.
Ellis has also drawn the new Precinct 4 to be heavily Democratic by offloading many Republican voters into the new Precinct 3. According to data analysis from the Texas Legislative Council, 56 percent of voters in the new Precinct 4 voted for President Biden in 2020.
Another point of confusion Friday morning was when the “swap” between precincts 3 and 4 would take place for county services.
Cagle told The Texan that he has instructed his employees to continue to provide services to the historic precinct for now.
Hidalgo’s office did not respond to a request for clarification as to when the swap in services would take place.
“There is still a lot of uncertainty, but what I can say is that my team and I will continue to work hard and provide the high level of service our constituents are used to receiving,” said Ramsey.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.