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DC court sets date for preclearance trial, primary dates still up in the air

Via email from the Lone Star Project:

[Monday], a three-judge panel of the District of Columbia Federal District Court set January 17, 2012 through January 26, 2012 as the trial dates to formally review the Congressional, State House and State Senate plans enacted by the Texas Republican leadership this summer.

The DC Court will review the plans under Section 5 of the US Voting Rights Act which prevents states like Texas with a long history of racial discrimination from adopting redistricting plans that reduce the ability of Hispanics or African Americans to elect their candidates of choice.  Earlier this fall, the DC Court denied a motion filed by Texas Republicans to gain approval of their plan without a trial.  In fact, the DC Court signaled their concern about potential violations in the GOP plan in its denial by saying that the state has used an, “improper standard or methodology to determine which districts afford minority voters the ability to elect their preferred candidates of choice.”

The Section 5 trial in DC will begin just a week after the US Supreme Court hears arguments concerning the interim redistricting plans ordered by a San Antonio Federal Court late last month.  The San Antonio Court ordered the interim maps because the State enacted plans had not yet received Section 5 preclearance.  With the preclearance trial date now set, the violations in the State’s plan can be specifically identified.

There is considerable evidence showing that not only do the State’s plans violate the Voting Rights Act but that the Republican controlled Legislature adopted the plans with a discriminatory purpose.  Extensive testimony has already been provided in both DC and in San Antonio detailing the efforts of Legislators to prevent representatives of large minority communities from participating meaningfully in the redistricting process.

The failure of Texas Republicans to draw maps that fairly reflect the minority voting strength in Texas is dramatically illustrated in their congressional plan.  Under the current congressional map, minority voters are allowed to elect their candidate of choice in 11 of 32 districts.  Under the State’s adopted plan, even though Hispanics and African Americans make up nearly 90 percent of the state’s population growth over the past decade, minority voters could elect their candidate of choice in only 10 of 36 districts.

State Attorney General Greg Abbott has expanded his legal efforts beyond simply advocating for the state’s controversial plans and has set his sites on the Voting Rights Act itself.  Abbott, on behalf of Governor Perry and other Texas Republican leaders is expected to argue to dramatically weaken, if not eliminate outright, the protections for minority voters spelled out in the Voting Rights Act.

Comments by Lone Star Project Director Matt Angle

The DC trial will again expose the overt efforts by Texas Republican leaders to adopt plans that protect their power by destroying the voting rights of Hispanic and African American Texans.

Greg Abbott will spare no expense and will cross any ethical or moral line to protect the political power of Republicans.  His willingness to destroy the voting rights of Texas citizens for partisan gain is a shameful reflection of the entire Texas Republican leadership.

In the meantime, the San Antonio court had a status conference to discuss election deadlines yesterday, and various parties in the suit filed briefs about the possibility of a split primary. In the end, not a whole lot was settled.

The Texas primary elections are still set — precariously — for March 6, but a panel of three federal judges extended the filing deadlines for candidates to Monday. But after a day in court, most of the confusion and the big questions persist, like whether some elections could be delayed.

The judges left open for now the question of whether any or all of the state’s primary elections should be pushed to another date, after hearing testimony from several election administrators about the logistical problems and high costs that would result from split primaries. They instead prepared to sign a proposal that would allow candidates to file for office through Monday, and to change their filings later — or to withdraw altogether — as the political maps change. The dates of the elections and the exact matchups of candidates and districts will be settled later.

Initially, the Republican Party of Texas supported keeping the non-affected primaries in March while moving the rest to May while the TDP and various plaintiffs supported a unified primary, which would have to be later than that; May is the most commonly cited month, but there was at least one suggestion for April floating around out there. Turns out that a number of elected Republicans, including 16 of the 19 State Senators and Congressman Lamar Smith, also supported the unified primary. Smith’s position required the RPT to use a substitute lawyer, since they both used Eric Opiela.

Election officials from several of the state’s biggest counties testified about the logistical problems and the costs of holding more than one set of primaries. With two extra elections — a primary and a runoff — the costs double. Voting precincts would have to be redrawn for the first primary and again for the second, once there’s a legal set of political maps. And they said it would take 60 to 90 days, under normal circumstances, to prepare for elections once they have maps in hand. They could reduce that time, said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, but not too much.

For the political parties, there’s a risk of going to state party conventions next summer with some elections undecided. More importantly for their business is the issue of how to choose party officials from the statewide level all the way down to the precinct level in time for those conventions. Both [RPT Chair Steve] Munisteri and Bill Brannon, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said the precinct chairs present particular problems. “You can’t choose precinct chairs for precincts if you don’t know their boundaries,” Brannon said.

Munisteri acknowledged a lack of agreement among the Republicans, but said he’d like to see three things: A March presidential primary so that Texas voters can weigh in before the race is decided; some certainty going into the state political conventions next summer; and something that protects candidates if and when the courts change the district lines.

Quite the mess, no? The parties involved have apparently brought in a mediator, but who knows what if anything will get hammered out. Harold Cook summed it up as follows:

So just to review, regarding the San Antonio Federal court hearing today: we have no hard filing deadline, for seats that don’t yet exist, for an election date we don’t know. Any questions?

Nope, I think that just about covers it. BOR and Michael Li have more.

UPDATE: Twenty-eight members of Texas’ Congressional delegation, including all Republicans running for re-election, have now signed a letter in favor of a unified primary.

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One Comment

  1. Mainstream says:

    Once again, an entire discussion of redistricting which completely ignores the huge problem in Texas of non-citizenship among its Hispanic population. While the growth in population may be largely Hispanic, it is dispersed, and rates of non-citizenship among Latinos makes it hard if not impossible to create compact, neighborhood-based districts in which a majority of the citizens will be Hispanic, as Section 2 of the the Voting Rights Act would require. Even urban black districts are almost stretched to the point where by the next census it may be hard to preserve all of them. This explains the elongated and often contorted appearance of these districts.