To understand why it takes so long to get election ballots together in Texas, it helps to know that some people still don't use email, that political candidates fill out forms incorrectly, and that regular mail is sometimes slow.
Prosaic enough, but the result is maddening, especially in an age of instant everything. The deadline for candidates to file for state office in Texas was on January 4. The political parties had ten days after that to pull together their lists and report their certified ballots to the Texas Secretary of State. In fact, the SOS finally got lists posted on its website on Monday, January 25. That's the first time — three weeks after the filing was over and candidates were already working, raising money, knocking on doors and speechifying — that Texans could get a definitive list of candidates, as presented by the political parties, from the state's chief election office. (Republicans are here, Democrats here, and our own brackets, which include the Democrats, the Republicans, the Libertarians and the certified independents are here.)
"We have some people who haven't joined the 21st Century and have to wait for mail and so on," says Bill Holcomb of Crockett, the Houston County Democratic chairman and the head of the Texas Democratic County Chairs Association. Holcomb says he and the state party had their business wrapped up within less than a week after the filing deadline. Others were much slower.
The deadline is simple enough. But Texas has 254 counties and all but a handful have party officials. And if a candidate's political district doesn't cross any county lines, candidates file locally instead of at their state party office. As it turns out, that's a lot of candidates: two-thirds of the 150 Texas House are single-county districts, for instance.
"I've never seen a reason for it to be at a local level. It's easier for a central agency to collect and distribute the money [from filing fees]," Holcomb says.
Things go wrong. Candidates make mistakes on their forms and can be disqualified for big ones. Their checks bounce. I's must be dotted and T's must be crossed. New people have to be trained. For instance: The Texas Democratic Party has chairs in 247 counties, and 102 of those people weren't in office the last time elections were held. It's a situation ripe for error. "You get a green chair in there trying to fill out a state rep's application and there's a mistake, then you've got egg on their face," Holcomb says.
Both parties have the same setup. The primaries are actually party elections, but the state runs the mechanical parts. State officials get the lists of candidates from the parties and proceed from there; the filing is handled by party officials and volunteers — not by state election workers.
"If I don't get it just right, then it's usually the candidate who's got the problem," says Lampasas County GOP chairman B.R. "Skipper" Wallace, who's also the legislative chairman of the Texas Republican County Chairmen's Association. Wallace, who's held the Lampasas job since 1991, tries to help candidates avoid filing mistakes. "A guy wants to run for office, I say let him run for office." But new chairs around the state fret over all of the things that can go wrong. "It's reinventing the wheel every two years," he says.
Wallace says he's in favor of anything that would improve the system, but competing interests often kill reform attempts. One argument is that it's best to leave a long-standing system for fear that change would just trigger a slew of mistakes. Another is that local pols don't really care to deal with the state party but would rather work with local officials who are closer to their own political interests. In some counties, chairs want the candidates to go through them and not through somebody up in Austin.
"It's a matter of being close to the locals," says Wayne Hamilton, a former executive director of the Texas GOP who is now a political consultant. He says legislators and some party people have tried to change the system through the years — to make state candidates file at the state party level, for instance — but the local outcry from some places has been too strong to overcome.
Lawmakers will probably tinker with the Election Code next year. They've certainly got a lot to tinker with. For instance, in 2003, they moved the primary election date from the second Tuesday in March to the first Tuesday in March. Candidates are still required to file on the first business day of the year. But the deadline for withdrawing from the ballot wasn't changed and is still set at 62 days before the election. This time, the deadline to get on the ballot was on January 4, but the deadline for getting off was days earlier, on December 30. Lawmakers will probably try to fix some of those glitches, and could change the filing procedures while they're in there.
Wallace, who testified against legislation that would have made some changes to the filing — letting candidates in one-county districts file at the state level to avoid local politics, for instance — is for an overhaul of the state's Election Code. That's one of the things we need to do is rewrite the whole thing," he says. "It is a convoluted mess. It is very difficult even for lawyers to interpret. And most of us who do this are not lawyers."