Vol 28, Issue 48 Print Issue

Splitsville

Voting signs in Austin during the 2010 election cycle.
Voting signs in Austin during the 2010 election cycle.

If you can't hold congressional and legislative primaries on March 6 — because you don't have maps in time — what happens next?

Election administrators pull their hair out. The judges were empathetic, but didn't offer much relief. At one point, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia told Bexar County Election Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen: "You're gonna be busy."

The courts can delay the primaries that don't have maps or that are dependent on those maps (like the elections for party precinct chairs), but there are questions over whether they can delay others.

Without dragging you through all of the details, it boils down to three choices: Hold all of the primaries, from president down to county commission, on the same date; split the primary and hold all of the unaffected elections on March 6 and everything else on a later date; or leave the presidential primary on March 6 and move everything else.

Option one is the cheapest, since it moves the election but doesn't add anything to the calendar. It has the disadvantage of taking Texas voters out of the presidential race at a time when that contest might still be undecided, and it could — depending on how late the primaries are held — wreak havoc on the state political conventions in early summer.

Option two is the most expensive because it creates two new elections — another primary, another runoff. The costs are borne by the counties and the state, so it amounts to an unfunded mandate. And it's hell on the calendars, since a lot of localities have elections already scheduled in May.

The third option creates one more election, since there are no runoffs in presidential primaries in Texas, and has that same possible impact on the parties.

None of these are great options. And the Republicans are squabbling among themselves over it. State GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri was in court this week arguing for a split primary, saying it would preserve voters' ability to influence the presidential race and was the least ugly option. (What he didn't say was that the March date could work to the advantage of the governor, if that's the inclination of the voters and if he's still in the race in March.) In that, the state party is at odds with many of its own officeholders; the court was treated to news that 15 of the state's 19 Republican senators and 28 of the 32 members of its congressional delegation (from both parties) don't want a split primary in 2012. That's also the position of the Texas Democratic Party, which argued that the judges can't practically split the primaries.

The main arguments seem to be that turnout will suffer, that costs will rise and that everyone will be confused. That's not a great environment for incumbents. And moderate voters in both parties, who are often less diligent about voting that the fire-breathers, might be less likely to show up. The split primary's lower turnout might favor small, organized groups, like the Tea Party.

If the state were to make these kinds of changes, they'd be subject to review under the Voting Rights Act, and court review.

It would be difficult to defend.