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If Courts Take More Time, So Will Primaries

If the federal courts don't come up with political maps in the next three weeks, Texas probably won't be able to hold primary elections on April 3.

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It takes at least two months to put a primary election together once political maps are finally drawn, and if the federal courts don't spit out a final Texas map within the next three weeks, the state's primary elections probably can't be held on April 3.

During Monday's oral arguments in the Texas redistricting case, the justices on the high court asked about holding elections on time in April or as late as June. At one point, they were working backward from the general election date next November as they tried to sort out the complexities of reworking political maps in the face of election deadlines.

"Texas has a very early primary," Justice Samuel Alito Jr. said at one point during the hearing. "Some states have them for congressional races in — in the fall, and the latest presidential primary I think is at the end of June. So why can't this all be pushed back, and wouldn't that eliminate a lot of the problems that we are grappling with in this case?"

The problems can be sorted into two piles. The state doesn't have maps to use for congressional and legislative elections, and it will take the courts a couple of months, at best, to come up with a set of maps that has jumped through all of the legal hoops, from trial courts to appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court and two separate panels of federal judges in Washington and in Texas are sorting out which maps to use.

That second stack of troubles is all about the calendar and the practicalities of holding elections. Once they have political maps, local election officials in the state's 254 counties have to break them down into voting precincts, sorting voters into the smaller groupings that show them everything from which races they'll be voting in to which places they'll be voting from. That tedious process can take four to five weeks in large counties, election officials say, and then those lines have to be approved by federal officials under the Voting Rights Act. The courts haven't approved a map for the April 3 election date.

"We've got to have those maps by the end of the month or we're not going to make those deadlines," said Steve Raborn, Tarrant County's election administrator.

Once the precinct lines are drawn, election adminstrators can send Texans the voter registration cards they'll need when they vote. At the same time, those officials can mail ballots to military and civilian voters overseas. That has to happen 45 days before the election, and can't happen until the precinct lines are drawn. The process has scads of other deadlines within it, but those two — the tedious drawing of precinct lines and the 45-day lead time for overseas voters — establish the time it takes to put an election together once the maps are approved.

If that was the end of it, Texas could hold its primaries anytime before November, but these are party primaries and are meant to start a process that continues through precinct conventions held on primary day, county and senate district conventions usually held two or three weeks later, and state party conventions, which by state law are held in June or July.

This year, both the Democrats and the Republicans are having their state conventions on June 7-9. When they picked those dates and started booking convention space and blocks of hotel rooms in Houston and Fort Worth, respectively, the primaries were supposed to be held on March 6. That would have given them almost three months to put together their convention delegations, and the runoffs on May 22 would have come before the conventions, too.

Those bookings can't be easily changed. The GOP convention, for instance, involves 18,000 people; that party booked its space six years ago.

When it became clear the maps weren't going to be ready, one proposal would have split the primaries, with the presidential election remaining in March and some or all of the rest of the elections moving to a later date. That would have taken care of the political parties, but would have doubled the number — and the costs — of this year's primary elections. Moving all of the primaries to April 3 (and the runoffs to June 5) was the compromise.

Several county organizations — the Conference of Urban Counties, the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, and the Texas Association of Counties — jumped into the fray last month, asking a panel of federal judges in San Antonio to keep the logistics in mind. That was an early warning that the April 3 date was in trouble.

"We are concerned with trying to do it in May, with all of the municipal elections in May," said Donald Lee, executive director of the Conference of Urban Counties. "The best thing would be to get a map this week, and get it in gear."

Delaying the primaries again could revive the idea of a split primary. Any delay puts the political parties in a bind. The Democrats initially proposed a May primary; the Republicans contended that was too close to the conventions. Talk of a later date has the chairman of the state GOP, Steve Munisteri, saying a split primary might be the only solution. "From my point of view, there is no choice but to have two primaries if you do not have the new Congressional, State House and State Senate lines in time to have an early April primary," he said in a Tuesday email to fellow Republicans.

Delays could be expensive. If the primaries are held in June, after the school year is over, election administrators would have to pay to open schools as polling places. During the school year, when those buildings are open, that's free, Raborn said. "There's the availability of people, too," he said. "We might have a hard time finding election workers, or even voters. Everyone is on vacation. Their minds are on vacation."

The Supreme Court's hearing was Monday, and it hasn't ruled (nor was it expected to, that quickly). A panel of federal judges in Washington, D.C., will begin hearings next week on whether the maps satisfy preclearance requirements in the Voting Rights Act. Final arguments in that proceeding are set for Feb. 3 — well after the end-of-January deadline for getting a map in time for April 3 elections.

"I don't think the San Antonio court or even the Supreme Court understood the complexity of the election," said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart. "Even voters — they show up to vote, and it just works. They have no idea what's going on behind the scenes."

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