SAN ANTONIO — The Texas primary elections are still set — precariously — for March 6, but a panel of three federal judges extended the filing deadlines for candidates to Monday. And after a day in court, most of the confusion and the big questions persist, like whether some elections could be delayed.
The judges left open for now the question of whether any or all of the state's primary elections should be pushed to another date, after hearing testimony from several election administrators about the logistical problems and high costs that would result from split primaries. They instead prepared to sign a proposal that would allow candidates to file for office through Monday, and to change their filings later — or to withdraw altogether — as the political maps change. The dates of the elections and the exact matchups of candidates and districts will be settled later.
The courts are trying to sort out an election tangle caused by litigation over redistricting maps for legislative and congressional seats in Texas. The Legislature drew maps earlier this year that haven't yet been approved under the federal Voting Rights Act. A second panel of federal judges, based in Washington, D.C., will begin hearings on that required "pre-clearance" on January 17.
The San Antonio judges drew interim maps last month. The Legislature's maps haven't been approved, and time was running out for election deadlines. But the U.S. Supreme Court, at the request of the state of Texas, blocked the San Antonio judges' maps last week and set hearings for Jan. 9.
That Supreme Court order left the state with no legal maps for congressional districts or state House and Senate districts, and with very little time left before the March 6 primaries to sort it all out. Candidates were already filing for office, though, and the political parties and election officials had no guidance on how to proceed.
Tuesday's hearing was supposed to sort that out. It solved the immediate problem — filing deadlines — but left some big questions unanswered. It's still not clear whether there will be one or more primary elections, or when those will happen. The attorneys recessed to talk it over late this afternoon and then told the judges they would bring in a mediator to work out their differences.
Meanwhile, elections officials don't know what maps to use for the elections, and they won't know until the Supreme Court and the Washington, D.C., circuit court rule next year. That makes a March 6 election for congressional and legislative seats unlikely and raises the question of whether to delay all or just some of the primary elections. Holding two primaries — one for the unmapped elections and another for everything else — would double the costs and probably reduce turnout, according to testimony from several witnesses. It's unclear, however, that the judges have the power to do anything about it.
Lawyers for the Republican Party of Texas told the judges that statewide and presidential primaries should continue on March 6 even if the legislative and congressional elections are delayed. They said the court has jurisdiction over the congressional and legislative elections, but not the primaries for president, U.S. Senate and other statewide positions. Later, state GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri testified that he'd be satisfied if the presidential primary remained on Super Tuesday while the other elections were moved to a later date.
Lawyers for the Texas Democratic Party and for various minority groups that sued the state over the Legislature-drawn maps called for a unified primary. They said the court does have the ability to make such a call, just as it did last month when it changed candidate filing deadlines for all of the elections, including the statewide ones.
That's also the position of many Republican and Democratic officeholders who weren't in the courtroom. Fifteen of the state's 19 Republican state senators issued a press release supporting a unified primary. An attorney for LULAC — the League of United Latin American Citizens — told the judges he was waiting on a letter from members of Congress from both parties in support of a unified primary.
The state GOP brought in a new lawyer — Andy Taylor, a former first assistant to the Texas attorney general — when its attorney, Eric Opiela, found himself with two clients on opposite sides of the issue: U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, wanted a unified election, while the party argued for separate dates.
Attorneys for the state said they weren't taking a position on whether the primary should be unified or split.
The judges asked whether they had already answered the jurisdiction question when they changed filing deadlines last month, for the contested races as well as the statewide races. If so, asked Judges Jerry Smith and Xavier Rodriguez, did that mean the original filing deadline should apply in those races? That deadline was yesterday, and several statewide incumbents hadn't filed for re-election at that time, including Supreme Court Justices David Medina and Don Willett, and Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Elsa Alcala. They'll have until next Monday to file, like everyone else, but that will likely arise again as the argument over the court's power to move the statewide election dates is argued next month.
Election officials from several of the state's biggest counties testified about the logistical problems and the costs of holding more than one set of primaries. With two extra elections — a primary and a runoff — the costs double. Voting precincts would have to be redrawn for the first primary and again for the second, once there's a legal set of political maps. And they said it would take 60 to 90 days, under normal circumstances, to prepare for elections once they have maps in hand. They could reduce that time, said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, but not too much.
For the political parties, there's a risk of going to state party conventions next summer with some elections undecided. More importantly for their business is the issue of how to choose party officials from the statewide level all the way down to the precinct level in time for those conventions. Both Munisteri and Bill Brannon, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said the precinct chairs present particular problems. "You can't choose precinct chairs for precincts if you don't know their boundaries," Brannon said.
Munisteri acknowledged a lack of agreement among the Republicans but said he'd like to see three things: a March presidential primary so that Texas voters can weigh in before the race is decided, some certainty going into the state political conventions next summer, and something that protects candidates if and when the courts change the district lines.