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Courting Voter Confusion

The election experts in the room were a beehive of nonverbal communication. Their reaction was on their faces: “Is this a drill? They’re kidding, right?”

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Litigation over the state’s new maps for congressional and legislative districts is pushing the March primaries deeper into 2012. The political parties agreed on Friday to move the primaries to April 3 from March 6.

The proposal, pending court approval, does get around the sticky question of holding some primaries in March and others later, whenever the courts approve political maps, but it takes Texas voters out of the Super Tuesday presidential primaries.

Politicians and judges are forever pulling this nonsense: trying to ad-lib easy fixes to complex situations. Every suggestion costs money. They upend intricate and complicated election laws in ways that don’t make sense. Split primaries? The question, with its potential for high costs and confused voters, leaves big-county election administrators incredulous.

Last week’s testimony by Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the Texas Republican Party, in a federal courthouse in San Antonio, amounted to an off-the-top-of-his-head rewrite of the state’s election laws. He started out advocating a split primary — with presidential and statewide elections on one date and congressional and legislative elections and contests that split counties on another.

And then he pulled another idea out of his ear: Why not have the presidential primaries on March 6, when Texas Republicans can have one last chance to a save their governor’s bid for national office, and all the other elections on a later date? Texans would be able to play in the presidential elections while their votes still mattered, and everything else could be decided later.

The election experts in the room were a beehive of nonverbal communication. Their reaction was on their faces: “Is this a drill? They’re kidding, right?”

Four election wizards from the biggest counties in Texas, put on the stand by lawyers from every position, each said essentially the same thing: “We can do what you want. It will be expensive. It will be complicated. Impossible, even.”

None of those officials got into the politics, other than to say splitting the primaries might lower the turnout or lead to some voter confusion. Mostly, they simply pointed out the costs — twice as many elections, twice as many dollars, just like the story problems in seventh grade — and the logistical problems. A party can’t hold elections for precinct chairmen or chairwomen without precinct lines, which derive from the congressional and legislative maps that are hung up in a federal court system that doesn’t appear to give a flying frankfurter about election timetables.

Months ago, Texas asked a panel of federal judges in Washington to preclear the maps approved by the Legislature. That court dawdled for so long that a separate panel of federal judges in San Antonio — working on other redistricting lawsuits — decided to draw maps to use for the elections while the Washington judges napped. Those interim maps are a bit more favorable to Democrats (but still tilted strongly toward Republicans). The state’s Republicans panicked and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to step in. It did and set hearings for January. That other Washington court set hearings, too, for January and February.

Until they’re done, there are no maps. That will most likely mean the delay of primaries. And there will almost certainly be at least one unpredictable effect. “Every time we come up with another idea, there’s always another gotcha,” testified Stan Stanart, the Harris County clerk.

It’s a genuine mess. Candidates are filing for legislative elections without knowing what districts they’ll be running in. They’re trying to raise money for those races, not knowing whether there will be any competition or even which voters they should visit. Voters don’t know which candidates should be compared and contrasted. The April 3 date works only if the courts finish the maps in time — no sure bet. It’s during the holidays, too, when everyone is distracted anyway.

Suppose state lawmakers were fooling with the primaries in a way that shrank voter turnout and affected the election results and the state political parties’ ability to hold summer conventions. Would that have been allowed under the Voting Rights Act? Would they have been able to justify the extra spending? Would the counties have complained?

Would these same federal courts have allowed it?

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