“There’s nothing inherently illegal or immoral about redistricting,” lead plaintiff’s attorney Andy Taylor told The Texan. “In this map, however, Democrats were so intent on achieving their political goals that they intentionally trampled on our clients’ sacred right to vote.”
In the “Ellis 3” map adopted by commissioners court last month, Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) engineered a swap of most of Precinct 3 with most of Precinct 4.
Under the Texas Constitution, voters elect a commissioner every four years in staggered elections. Thus the “even-numbered” precincts, 2 and 4, will hold elections in 2022, and the “odd-numbered” precincts, 1 and 3, in 2024.
With the swap of precincts in Harris County, however, more than 1.1 million residents will be shuffled between even and odd numbered precincts. Thus, residents of the previous Precinct 4 who were set to vote for a commissioner in 2022 will not vote again until 2024, creating a six-year span between elections.
One of three plaintiffs, all of whom are ethnic minorities, Ranya Khanoyan, is a high-school senior who voted for the first time this month. Khanoyan says she is a political independent and was looking forward to voting in the Precinct 4 commissioners race in 2022, but now that she and her family have been moved to Precinct 3, she will not be able to vote for a commissioner until 2024.
“I’m not willing to look Ranya who just turned 18 in the face and say, ‘You know, sweetie, you’re going to have to wait until 2024 to vote,’” said Taylor. “The right to vote is sacred.”
Additionally, under Ellis’ plan residents of Precinct 3 who were shifted into Precincts 2 or 4 and who just elected a commissioner in 2020, will vote again for a commissioner next year.
Plaintiff Alan Vera has been moved from Precinct 3 to 4, and plaintiff David Lugo resides in Precinct 1. Under the new districts, Latino voting strength is weakened in Precinct 1, and Democratic voting is strengthened in Precincts 1, 2, and 4, while Republican voters are packed into Precinct 3.
“The Ellis 3 Plan illegally and unconstitutionally stripped…specific Harris County registered voters of their constitutionally protected right to vote under the Texas Constitution,” said Taylor.
While redistricting must occur every 10 years to keep the populations of county precincts equal within a deviation of 10 percent, the lawsuit argues that the county could have fulfilled the “equal population mandate of ‘one-person, one-vote” without shifting any residents between even and odd-numbered precincts.
Plaintiffs along with the two Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court, Tom Ramsey (Pct. 3) and Jack Cagle (Pct. 4), will present a demonstration map to the court that moves about 200,000 residents but without disrupting the four-year voting schedules.
Filed in state district court, the case is expected to move quickly through the system to the Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) due to upcoming elections.
“We’re going to move like a rocket,” said Taylor who has represented clients in redistricting cases for decades. “Redistricting is one of those areas of the law that moves very, very rapidly.”
Taylor explained that if SCOTX tosses the Ellis 3 Map, the court could then either adopt the plaintiff’s proposed map or allow the trial court to create an entirely new map.
In the lawsuit plaintiffs cite similar redistricting cases in which courts object to moving residents from a precinct that has a right to vote scheduled for the next election cycle to a precinct that does not. In one example, Dollinger v. Jefferson County Commissioners Court, the court ordered a special election to cure the problem.
Since the case appeals to the Texas Constitution, Taylor writes that “ultimately, it will be the prerogative of the Texas Supreme Court to determine the contours of a state constitutional right to vote in a staggered election system.”
Following Tuesday’s announcement, Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee defended the Ellis 3 map in a statement, writing, “The County ran a transparent and thorough redistricting process. We’re confident the map Commissioners Court adopted complies with Texas law.”
Plaintiffs also argue that Democrats did not adhere to their stated commitment to reunite “communities of interest” but instead “wreaked havoc” and imperiled delivery of services.
Earlier this month, the commissioners court approved a memorandum of understanding to outline a plan for transitioning services between the old and new precincts. Because of the enormity of the swap between precincts, commissioners agreed to push the deadline from January 31, 2022, to March 31, 2022, with some portions not to be completed until June.
Taylor scolded Hidalgo, Ellis, and Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) who he said imposed the map to not only strengthen the Democrat majority but to “run up a political score” at the expense of more than one million voters.
“Lina, Rodney, and Adrian, Shame on you. Shame on you. The right to vote is more important than you.”
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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.