By Tim Eaton
A federal court in San Antonio said Monday that it is "giving serious consideration" to calling for split dates for party primaries with the presidential nominating contests coming earlier than legislative races in which district boundaries have yet to be decided.
The only way to proceed as planned with a single primary date on April 3 would be for the State of Texas and plaintiffs' groups suing the state to agree upon interim redistricting maps by Feb. 6, said U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia, who is on the three-judge panel in San Antonio that is hearing one of the Texas redistricting cases.
In theory, it wouldn't be impossible to still designate a single primary date. But getting the state, represented by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, and the plaintiffs, who claim the Legislature drew maps that dilute the minority vote, to agree on much of anything seems pretty unlikely, said Steve Bickerstaff, a University of Texas School of Law professor who worked on redistricting cases for more than 40 years.
"There's just too much at stake," he said.
In a court order Monday, Garcia wrote that the he and the other judges "would not be bound by any such agreement but would take it into careful consideration in announcing interim plans."
The San Antonio panel is just one of the courts dealing with Texas redistricting. While it considers plaintiffs' claims that the Legislature's maps violate the Voting Rights Act by diluting the minority vote, a federal court in Washington, D.C., is hearing another Voting Rights Act case; the Washington court will decide if the Legislature's maps deserve pre-clearance. Texas and other mostly Southern states with a history of discrimination must have redistricting maps approved by the federal government before they can be enacted, as outlined in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
To deal with looming primaries and a lack of district boundaries, the San Antonio panel has taken significant steps in recent months. It has delayed the primaries from the original date of March 6, and it has drafted a batch of interim redistricting maps for Congress, the Texas House and the state Senate. But the U.S. Supreme Court rejected those maps last week, and sent the panel of judges in San Antonio back to drawing board.
In Monday's order, the San Antonio court said that the parties in the case need to be ready by Feb. 6 to say which districts drawn by the Legislature are not in contention, in the event that the parties cannot agree on interim maps.
Garcia and the other judges also asked the state and the plaintiffs to help them get all the information they need to draw new redistricting maps. In particular, the San Antonio court would like the parties to request a swift judgment from the Washington court's pre-clearance case, so the San Antonio court would be able to take it into account when it draws maps for the 2012 elections.
Garcia also said the parties in the case should be prepared to comment on the various forms of a split primary. He offered a couple of options to think about.
For one, the state Republican and Democratic parties might conduct only the presidential primaries and the precinct chair elections on April 3 — or some other date in early or mid-April. This option would allow the state parties to hold their conventions as scheduled in early June. That option would put off all other primaries — and any runoffs — to a later date that is yet to be determined.
Another option outlined by the court would be to hold the presidential primaries in April along with other designated primaries that do not depend on the district lines, leaving the remaining primary elections to be held later.
The court said the possible categories of offices that could be included in an election with the presidential primaries: statewide offices, multicounty offices that do not cut county lines, any office that encompasses only one whole county, and offices that include districts or precincts within counties but do not involve the district lines to be decided by the San Antonio court.