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Will Redistricting Court Battles Create Electoral Confusion?

The redrawing of political district lines — which ideally happens just once a decade after a federal census — could create a series of crazy election cycles for Texas voters and candidates. It happened in the 1990s, and it could happen again now.

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The redrawing of political district lines — which ideally happens just once a decade after a federal census — could create a series of crazy election cycles for Texas voters and candidates.

It happened in the 1990s. And it could happen again now, with federal judges in Washington and San Antonio likely to miss a deadline for getting final maps in place before the 2012 elections.

The time crunch is built into the system. The federal government conducts a census every 10 years, like the one it completed in 2010. It sends the data to the states, and lawmakers adjust their political maps to ensure every statehouse and Congressional district is the same size.

The Legislature draws new maps for the State Board of Education, the Texas House, the Texas Senate and the state’s Congressional delegation. Lawmakers even finished on time this year. When they don’t, the mapmaking falls to others. This year, the maps were complete by mid-summer.

Then someone sues. That’s historical, not cynical. Texas is covered by the federal Voting Rights Act. Its maps have to be approved by either the federal courts in Washington or by the U.S. Department of Justice. This year, it’s in the courts, which won’t clear statehouse maps until after hearings set for November.

That’s where the deadlines come in. Texas candidates can start filing on Nov. 12, and are supposed to do so before Dec. 12. The courts can move those deadlines, but not by much. The primaries are in March, and candidates need time to campaign and to raise money. They need to have some idea of which districts they live in, much less run in, and they need time to sort it out.

The federal court in San Antonio is almost closer to the finish line. The three judges there held hearings last month, and a ruling is pending. Since the Washington judges are still working, the Texas judges have asked the various litigants to submit interim maps that could be used, under court order, while the judges continue to finalize maps.

Makes you want to jump into politics, doesn’t it?

It means that the state could hold primary elections in March under temporary maps approved by the federal courts. While the 2012 elections are under way, the courts would then have time to draw permanent maps that could be used in 2014.

That could leave voters with new legislators several times over. In the ’90s, the census numbers came in, lawmakers drew maps, the court cases started, and the confusion began. Texans elected a State Senate on a court-drawn map in 1992, on a court-approved map redrawn by the Legislature in 1994 and then on another map that resulted from a court settlement in 1995. The final approval for the maps finally came in the summer of 1997, years after the mapmaking began.

In 2000, a new census was completed and lawmakers started all over again in 2001.

And here we are.

The courts still have time, but it’s tight. That’s why the federal judges in San Antonio have put the lawyers to work on interim maps — in case the courts miss the deadlines.

Does it matter? It depends. The Washington skirmish is focused on five districts in the Texas House and on two in the Congressional map. The question there is whether those maps reduce minority voters’ opportunities to elect candidates.

The questions in San Antonio are broader and include issues related to the state’s growth. Most of it — 89 percent over the last 10 years — was attributed to growth in Hispanic and black populations. Several groups filed redistricting lawsuits alleging the Legislature failed to draw political maps with new minority opportunity districts in the state.

Timing is everything. If the San Antonio court draws interim maps based on what it has heard — testimony about growth in minority populations — it might draw different maps than it would draw with the Washington court’s ruling in hand.

Lawyers are busy arguing over whether that will matter. Certainty is what is at stake here.  For candidates, it’s a question of where to run. For political strategists, it’s about competition and candidate recruitment. For voters, it’s more basic than any of that: Who represents us, and will we get to vote for or against them more than once?

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Politics State government Redistricting Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Texas Senate