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Texas Counties Object to April 3 Primaries

In papers filed in federal court today, officials who administer the state's elections said the April 3 primaries — agreed to by the Democratic and Republican parties and ordered by a panel of federal judges — create an impossible situation.

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Texas counties say the April 3 primary election date won't work.

In papers filed in federal court this afternoon, the officials who actually administer the state's elections say that date — agreed to by the Democratic and Republican parties and ordered by a panel of federal judges in San Antonio — creates an impossible situation for them.

Meanwhile, the state asked the U.S. Supreme Court to order elections using congressional and legislative maps drawn by the Legislature instead of maps drawn by that San Antonio panel. A different federal panel in Washington, D.C., is working on the state's request for preclearance of those maps under the federal Voting Rights Act but won't hold hearings until next month. 

The primaries were delayed from March 6 when it became apparent that political maps wouldn't be in place in time for congressional and legislative elections on that date. After hearings on whether to split the primaries — holding unaffected elections in March and affected ones later — the three federal judges asked the lawyers for the parties to try to work out a compromise.

They came back with a proposal for a unified April 3 primary with all of the races from the top to the bottom of the ballot. The primary runoff elections would be held on June 5.

In their legal briefs, the Conference of Urban Counties, the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, and the Texas Association of Counties said they agree that all of the primaries should be held on the same day, but object to the date chosen by the political parties:

Despite agreement with the unified primaries, the County Organizations believe the Order issued in these consolidated cases on December 16, 2011 imposes on counties requirements that (1) are impossible to comply with, or that will be extremely difficult and expensive to comply with, if compliance is physically possible; and (2) may lead to voter confusion and disenfranchisement.

They said they're basing that position on conferences with several counties of various sizes, from Harris, the state's most populous county, all the way down to Shelby, with its 25,400 residents.

The court based the April 3 date on having a map in place by Feb. 1. But the counties say that wouldn't leave them enough time. The court would give them only two weeks to prepare voter registration certificates that take six to seven weeks to prepare, the groups said.

"If voter registrars are required to mail inaccurate voter registration certificates in order to meet the deadline set by the Court, there is likely to be much confusion among voters. And voter confusion leads to voter disenfranchisement," they wrote.

That's just one of several timing problems, they wrote, asking for a hearing that includes county election officials on the particulars of choosing election dates. Several election administrators testified at a hearing before the federal judges earlier this month, but the courts approved a date the counties say would be impossible to meet unless some other laws are waived.

"Such orders may include orders that expedite implementation of election precinct boundaries, such as a limited waiver of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and orders waiving strict compliance with the MOVE Act, and such additional orders as necessary to allow sufficient time to prepare and mail ballots for the general and runoff primaries," they wrote.

It's not clear that April 3 will ultimately work out for the courts, either. The U.S. Supreme Court will hold oral arguments on a court-drawn map on Jan. 9, and a separate three-judge federal panel in Washington, D.C., will start hearings on the Legislature's versions of the maps on Jan. 17. The panel in San Antonio has Jan. 14 marked as the day to hear from lawyers about the election schedule. If the courts don't finish their work on maps by the end of January, the April 3 date will have to slide again — and all of those questions were in the air before the counties weighed in with their concerns.

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