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Analysis: Texas Election Managers Are Partying Like It's 2012

Federal judges are deciding two major Texas election law cases. One in particular — over the political maps for state House and congressional districts — has officials thinking about 2012, when the courts delayed the primary elections.

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It seems early to the rest of us, but election officials are getting ready for the 2016 presidential election year. And federal judges could foul things up — like they did four years ago — if they’re late with pending rulings on congressional and state House district lines and on photo ID laws for voters.

“We’re holding our breath,” said Jacque Callanen, Bexar County’s elections administrator. “We’re closing in on our next round of elections.”

Late court-driven changes to the state's political maps pushed the 2012 primaries from March to May. That had real consequences: Ted Cruz credited the extra time as one factor that enabled him to overcome Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the favorite in that year’s race for U.S. Senate.

The delayed primary also ruined whatever tiny chance Texas Republicans had at any say in that year’s presidential primary. By the time they voted in May, Mitt Romney had things all buttoned up.

Everyone has signed off on the maps for the Texas Senate. The districts for the Texas House and the U.S. congressional delegation, however, remain tangled in arguments over whether the Republican Legislature intentionally discriminated against minority voters while trying to draw a map that included the most Republican districts possible. The judges are deciding now whether new lines are required.

A similar delay would be significant in 2016, when Texas voters will have a real chance to make themselves heard. The state’s primary is set for March 1, with early voting coming right after elections in Iowa and New Hampshire, and overlapping the votes in Nevada and South Carolina.

Here’s a daring prediction: Those states won’t have the final say in who gets the nominations from either party. Texas, the biggest of the dozen states in the Super Tuesday primary, will have greater influence than usual.

That happened in 2008, when Democrats had not decided between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The two had to campaign here instead of using the state solely as a campaign finance vending machine. Turnout went up in both parties. It was fun, as expensive, noisy and competitive elections often are.

The political world is poised to top that performance next March, when the Republicans bring whatever is left of their 17-candidate presidential debating society to Texas and 11 other states for voter review. The Democrats might or might not be set on Clinton this time; eight years ago this month, her nomination seemed just as certain as it does today.

Texas could be hosting two rambunctious primaries next year.

Or none at all.

Four years ago, litigation over the state’s political maps spilled into the political year. If that were to happen next year, Texas would be one of the last states to vote instead of one of the first. If the judges change the political lines, election officials will have to send different information to voters — whose district am I in? — and pulling that information together takes time. Four years ago, those election officials told the judges they’d have to get started, at a minimum, 77 days ahead of the elections.

When they were hearing the redistricting case four years ago, the three federal judges assembled in San Antonio were aware of the calendar and tried to finish their work before the election machinery engaged. They didn’t make it.

Many of the same election officials who were guiding the court through the thicket of the election calendar then are starting to fidget. The case before those same three judges then is the same case, thousands of pages of court filings and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, that is before them today.

And the clock is ticking once again, with no indication of when the judges will rule — in either election case. Another federal voting law decision over the state’s photo voter ID law is also pending. It could cause some problems with the calendar — mainly having to do with the training of voters and election judges — but is not as serious a threat as the redistricting case. Voter ID could affect this November’s elections; redistricting isn’t an issue until the 2016 contests. And voter ID doesn’t require new maps, and the time new maps entail.

But the first small steps toward the primaries start in September. The real work involving election maps comes in early to mid-November, when voter registration forms — based on the political districts — are prepared. A ruling any later than that could be 2012 all over again, Bexar County’s Callanen said.

One of the arguments in the current case is over a congressional district — the 23rd — that stretches from El Paso County east to San Antonio. “We’re heard that Bexar County is going to be in the eye of the hurricane,” she said.

She’s nervous, but confident the judges don’t want a repeat performance. “It will be death warmed over before they would move that primary,” she said.

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