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Texas Elections In Limbo As Courts Mull Voting Maps

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AUSTIN (AP) – Two ongoing legal cases to determine whether new voting maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature discriminate against minorities have cast uncertainty over Texas’ 2012 elections.

While a federal court in Washington has been mulling for months whether the maps meet legal requirements, another court in Texas is preparing to temporarily implement alternative maps to ensure March primaries are not delayed.

Until the cases are resolved, would-be candidates for Congress and legislative seats aren’t sure what districts they live in, much less which ones they’ll run in. Elections officials can’t finalize realigned precincts, set up polling places or begin printing ballots.

“We’re sort of in a state of limbo,” said Jose Garza, an attorney representing the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, one of the plaintiffs suing the state over the proposed maps. “The time now is pretty critical.”

Expressing doubt that a resolution would be in place before the upcoming election deadlines, a federal judge in San Antonio has asked plaintiffs to submit alternative maps by Monday that can be used until final maps are in place. A hearing to determine the interim plans is set to start Oct. 31, two days before another judicial panel in Washington reviews the validity of the state-approved maps.

Meanwhile, the backlog of deadlines has already started.

The San Antonio court, which concluded a trial on the matter last month, waived an Oct. 1 deadline for county officials to finalize their election precinct boundaries. A requirement that counties issue new voter registration certificates to voters also was temporarily lifted.

Candidates have a month starting Nov. 12 to file for a spot on the ballots, which have to be mailed to overseas voters by Jan. 21.

“You can see the pressure cooker we’re living in,” said Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator.

Several plaintiffs groups, including MALC and the League of United Latin American Citizens, said they would submit separate interim proposals Monday, although the court suggested they agree on one plan.

Several Democrats and minority groups sued the state after the Legislature redrew voting district boundaries this summer, arguing the maps are discriminatory because they camouflage a statewide surge in Hispanic population during the past decade. They argue the growth warrants the creation of districts in which Hispanics have enough voting strength to elect the candidates of their choice.

Plaintiffs have targeted the design of a handful of districts, including a sweeping West Texas congressional district represented by freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Quico Canseco. Critics contend Hispanic-dominated precincts with a history of low turnout were moved into the district to meet the constitutional requirements while maintaining its GOP dominance. Hispanic voters have traditionally supported Democratic candidates.

The Texas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also among the plaintiffs, has argued growth in Texas’ black population merits at least one new district with a mostly black population on the congressional map.

The Legislature is tasked with redrawing electoral districts every 10 years to reflect updated census data. This year, Texas received four new seats in the U.S. House based on a population surge driven by Hispanics.

The MALC proposal being submitted Monday would preserve the seven minority-dominated districts already in the congressional map and turn the four new seats into minority-dominated districts — three Hispanic districts and one black district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Under a provision in the Voting Rights Act, the Legislature’s redistricting maps can’t be legally implemented until the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington determines the maps do not limit people’s right to vote on the basis of race or language group.

Bypassing the Justice Department, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked the federal court in July to approve the Legislature’s map.

The state “continues to believe … we will have a decision from the D.C. District Court in time to comply with Texas’ new voter registration deadlines, deeming interim maps unnecessary,” Abbott spokeswoman Lauren Bean said in an e-mailed statement to The Associated Press. “The interim maps would only be necessary if the D.C. court has not issued a decision in time for Texas to prepare for the March 2012 primary election.”

Former Democratic Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, who was ousted last year by the freshman lawmaker Canseco after 11 years in office, said he’s committed to running for re-election, no matter what the final map looks like. But he’s optimistic that the courts will restore the current boundaries of his old Congressional District 23.

“I’ve been through this game,” Rodriguez said. “You never know what the judges are going to do in the end.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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