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Crunch Time: Judges Want New Maps Quickly

The state's political mapmakers will be back in court this morning, trying to produce maps in time for April primaries.

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Candidates are ready. Voters are ready. The judges are ready. But the lawyers apparently haven't come to terms on maps for this year's congressional and legislative elections.

Today, in a San Antonio courtroom, the lawyers will meet with a panel of three federal judges who have said they want maps quickly — this week — so they can schedule primary elections.

The judges — and the lawyers in the case — have heard election administrators from several counties around the state, each of whom said it would take 60 to 80 days to put together an election once the maps have been approved.

April 24 is 10 weeks, or 70 days, from today. Anything closer than that last Tuesday of April could cause problems for the people who run the elections. And even that date is stretching it, because the court hasn't approved a map and whoever might object to it hasn't had time to appeal.

But the judges were clear last week when they urged the lawyers to continue to negotiate and indicated their desire to get maps in place in time for April elections.

In the absence of a settlement, the various parties are filing maps with the court that show how they'd draw districts in particular parts of the state. And the state sent the judges a filing on Monday that said the main disagreement in congressional maps is about Congressional District 25, where U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, is the incumbent.

In the Legislature's map and in last week's attempt at a compromise, that would turn into a Republican district that runs from Hays County, south of Austin, north to the Tarrant County border. Democrats don't like it, for obvious reasons. Travis County doesn't like it, because it leaves a map without a seat based there. And some minority groups argue that their voters fare better in a Travis County-based map than in the one offered by the state. In its filing, the state told the judges that it "cannot compromise on this district" and said that could prevent a deal on that map.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, offered two maps of Tarrant County that she would prefer to the current map. Another plaintiff group offered congressional maps for Dallas and Tarrant counties that include a new Latino district.

In its Monday filing, the state said it was waiting for proposals on the House plan.

The judges' options are numerous.

They haven't ruled out the proposed maps offered by the state and blessed by some of the plaintiffs, including a coalition calling itself the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force.

Maps drawn by the judges last year were effectively killed by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court also gave them instructions for drawing new maps, saying they should start with the Legislature's work and correct it, where need be, for violations and probable violations of the federal Voting Rights Act and the Constitution. (A separate panel of federal judges in Washington will determine whether and how the state's maps fit with Section 5 of that law, but have said they won't have a ruling until next month. The Supreme Court told the San Antonio judges to draw based on a "reasonable probability" of what the Washington court will do.)

They can still split the primaries. That would allow voters to take part in a presidential primary — that is still being contested in the GOP — before several other states weigh in. It would also allow the parties to elect the precinct officials who eventually populate their conventions in early June. It would allow all of the parties, including Libertarians and Greens, to get lists of people who voted in the Republican and Democratic primaries; that's the only declaration of party membership in Texas, and it's the only way they know who can and cannot vote in their nomination processes.

The judges have said that if the parties don't have a deal when they get to San Antonio today, the court will make time and space available for negotiations.

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