AUSTIN (AP) – This week three federal judges in San Antonio will start resolving one of the great political mysteries of the year: When will Texas hold primary elections and what will the congressional and legislative districts look like?
Texas was supposed to take part in the Super Tuesday vote on March 6, but the failure of the state to win approval of new political maps in Washington and a separate civil rights lawsuit in San Antonio delayed the vote to April 3, when the state was scheduled to use temporary maps drawn by the San Antonio judges.
The U.S. Justice Department or a federal judge must approve any changes to Texas election law because of the state’s history of racial discrimination, and without that approval federal judges must draw temporary maps. Minority groups have also sued in federal court claiming that the maps dilute their political power and have offered up alternative maps. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has argued that the maps only dilute the power of Democratic voters, which is perfectly legal.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the temporary maps first drawn by the San Antonio court and said the judges should have paid more attention to the Legislature’s original maps for Congress, the Texas House and the Texas Senate. Trying to short circuit another appeal, the judges asked the state and the minority groups to reach a compromise. But that didn’t happen in time for an April 3 primary.
On Friday, the judges ordered all sides to keep trying to draft compromise maps before Tuesday, when lawyers for the state and minority groups will appear again before the judges to make their final arguments.
“It is the court’s desire to have redistricting plans in place for an April primary and all parties must continue their negotiations to assist the Court in accomplishing that task,” Judge Orlando Garcia wrote in an order issued Friday. “If the parties have ceased negotiations, they should resume with all due effort between now and the time of the hearing.”
The judges clearly want a compromise by next week. Politicians and party operatives will hang on the judges’ every word, hoping for some indication of when they will finish and set a primary election schedule.
“There is still some chance we will have an April 17th primary if maps can be put in place by February 20,” Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri said Wednesday in an e-mail.
Party leaders have many good political reasons for wanting to vote soon. Texas Republicans still want a chance to sway the outcome of the presidential nomination race and they want a high voter turnout, which comes if Republican voters think they’ll have a say in picking their presidential candidate.
“Fortunately, the Presidential race appears to still have a long ways to go and this increases the likelihood that even a later Texas Presidential primary will still have an impact on the selection of our nominee,” Munisteri said.
Incumbent politicians also want a quick primary to limit the chances of a challenger catching up to them before election day. Every day a challenger has to shake hands and raise money is another chance they have of winning.
Time is also running out, though, for more practical reasons. The primary also selects who will attend the precinct, county and state conventions, a process that takes normally takes 45 days. Candidates who don’t get more than 50 percent of the vote must also face run-off elections that should be completed before party conventions.
Because of municipal elections previously scheduled for May, early voting and time needed to program voting machines, there is not time between April 17 and May 27 for the primaries. Holding a primary on May 27 with conventions running June 8-10 is nearly impossible.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties put down large deposits for hotel rooms and convention space and they don’t have time to reschedule.
Getting everything in place for an April 17 primary will also challenge the skills of county election officers. Once the new maps come out, the candidate filing period must be re-opened to give politicians a chance to jump back into the race if they choose. Then counties have to hold a drawing to determine in what order the names will appear on the ballot and then get ballots printed.
Counties will also have to redraw precinct boundaries and issue new voter cards. Lastly, county election officers must mail absentee ballots, program voting computers and set up early voting stations.
Combined, these factors mean the court needs to produce maps no later than Feb. 20 for the state to hold a primary on April 17, the last date to prevent the collapse of the party conventions and a delay of elections until late-May. The people of Texas should know more this week.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)