Monday, January 23, 2012

Still A Path To A April 3rd Primary Election?

In an order issued this afternoon, the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio asked lawyers for the State of Texas and plaintiffs' groups (the parties) to appear for a status conference on Friday, January 27, at 1 p.m. The San Antonio court has asked the parties for input on the Supreme Court's ruling last Friday that leaves senate, house and congressional candidates without political districts.

The Supreme Court said that because the Legislature's political district maps have not been cleared under the Voting Rights Act and interim district maps drawn by the San Antonio court were not adequately justified, the three district judges in San Antonio must try again to come up with senate, house and congressional district maps that will compensate for Texas' growing population, but not discriminate against minorities.

Jose Garza, who argued the high court case on behalf of the minority groups and Texas Democrats, said Abbott is “celebrating too early.’’ He said he expects the new maps to look a lot like the ones the Supreme Court justices threw out. Garza said he believes the biggest problem with the San Antonio court-drawn maps is that the judges “could have done a better job of explaining themselves.’’

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia, who is on the three-judge panel in San Antonio that is hearing one of the Texas redistricting cases, said that if the parties wish to maintain a unified April 3rd primary election date, they must agree among themselves on interim senate, house and congressional maps so the court can set Feb. 6th as the new candidate filing deadline.

In the court order issued Monday, Garcia wrote that he and the other judges, "would not be bound by any such agreement but would take it into careful consideration in announcing interim plans."

It isn't necessarily impossible to still designate a unified primary date in April, but getting the state, represented by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, and the plaintiffs, who claim the Republican controlled Texas Legislature gerrymandered new district maps such that they dilute the minority vote, to agree on new maps among themselves in less than a week seems wholly implausible.

In Monday's order, the San Antonio court said that the parties need to be ready by Feb. 6th to say which districts drawn by the Legislature are not in contention, in the event that the parties cannot agree on interim maps.

The San Antonio court also advised the parties that it is giving 'serious consideration' to a split primary. Judge Garcia advised the parties they should be prepared on January 27th to comment on the various ways to split the primary. Garcia offered the parties some split primary options to consider:

One option the Republican and Democratic parties might consider is to hold only the presidential primaries and precinct chair elections on April 3rd — or some other date in early or mid-April. This option would allow the Republican and Democratic parties to hold their conventions as scheduled in early June. That option would put off the primary elections — and any primary runoffs — for all other state and county offices to a later yet-to-be-determined date.

Another split primary option Judge Garcia offered would be to hold the presidential primary elections on April 3rd — or some other date in early or mid-April — along with elections for other designated offices that do not depend on the senate, house and congressional district lines. The senate, house and congressional primary elections would then be held on a later to-be-determined date.

The possible categories of offices that could be included in an April election with the presidential primaries, include: statewide offices, multi-county offices that do not cut county lines, any office that encompasses only one whole county, and offices that include districts or precincts within counties that do not involve the disputed senate, house and congressional district maps.

Finally, the San Antonio court asked the State of Texas to be prepared on Friday to say whether it would reimburse counties and political parties for the expense of conducting a split primary elections. The additional cost of a two part election is expected to run somewhere in the neighborhood of at least $13 million.

It was the Republican Party of Texas that today suggested to the San Antonio district court that the filing deadline for the April 3rd primary election might be moved from Feb 1st to Feb 6th for the April 3rd election. That might be good for the Republican party, but county election officials will likely baulk at the suggestion with their own pleading to the San Antonio court.

Last December, when the San Antonio court set Feb 1st as the candidate filing deadline for a April 3rd election date, several county organizations — the Conference of Urban Counties, the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, and the Texas Association of Counties — told the court in a pleading that they had “serious reservations and concerns” about their ability to comply with the April 3rd election schedule and asked the judges to keep election logistics in mind. The county organizations said that compliance would be “extremely difficult and expensive” if even physically possible...” The counties said the Feb 1st — April 3rd timeline wouldn't leave them enough time to prepare an election that usually takes up to eight weeks to prepare. Today, the Republican Party proposed lopping another week off the April 3rd election day timeline.

County election officials must have election precincts mapped, voter registration cards printed and mailed, ballots prepared, and voting machines programmed and delivered to polling locations not by April 3rd, but a few days before March 19th, the first day of early voting for the April 3rd election date.

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