Prolonged Redistricting Fight Keeps Texas In Limbo

Published February 3, 2012 9:54PM (EST)

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The once-a-decade fight over political boundaries in Texas has been so frenetic that a Democrat who bolted for the GOP saw his state House district redrawn solidly blue, opted against re-election, then got new hope from the U.S. Supreme Court that it might go red again.

And amid all the confusion, a deadline of Monday looms for some kind of redistricting compromise.

Aaron Pena's situation epitomizes a particularly confusing redistricting clash in Texas, driven by new census numbers that show a burgeoning Hispanic population. The stakes are unusually high because the nation's second-largest state is adding four congressional seats — and the way they're divvyed up could be pivotal in determining which party controls the U.S. House.

The GOP-dominated Legislature got the first crack at drawing new maps for Congress and the Statehouse. But now the matter is being hashed out in federal courtrooms in San Antonio and Washington, D.C., because Texas is one of the states required to prove to the U.S. government that its election changes don't discriminate against minorities. The U.S. Supreme Court has already weighed in.

The state and a coalition of minority groups have until Monday to compromise on temporary maps, or see the April 3 Texas primaries pushed possibly into May or even later. That would likely strip away any influence Texas might have had in selecting the Republican nominee for president.

"Something needs to happen," said Pena, who represented his House district along the U.S.-Mexico border for a decade for a Democrat before switching parties last year. "We need certainty."

Pena's district became a Democratic stronghold under a court ruling, but then the U.S. Supreme Court signaled not enough deference was shown to the maps drawn by Republicans in the Legislature. If the district is changed again, that could cause Pena to seek re-election after all.

But even if there's a temporary deal by Monday, it's no quick-fix. Millions of voter registrations need to be mailed, candidates still have campaigns to launch, and political action committees must quickly decide where to spend.

It's the fourth straight decade that Texas' redistricting plans have been hotly contested in court. In 2003, dozens of Texas Democrats famously fled the state and camped out at a Holiday Inn in Oklahoma to prevent passage of a Republican-drawn map. Furious GOP leaders wanted the FBI to track them down.

While there have been no similar theatrics, plenty is on the line. Texas' gain in congressional seats is twice as large as any other state's, and those gains were largely driven by nearly 3 million new Hispanic residents. Minority groups accused the GOP-controlled Legislature of ignoring those gains and illegally diluting their voting power.

Another wrinkle is getting the minority coalition suing the state — some nine separate plaintiffs — to agree on the same map. On Friday, several Texas congressional members sent Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott a letter warning the state that all the parties need to agree on any deal or risk another court challenge.

While a San Antonio federal court tries to settle on a primary date, another federal court in Washington announced this week that a separate issue over whether the maps violate the Voting Rights Act won't be decided for at least a month.

That further dampened the likelihood of an April 3 primary and set off a fresh round of groans around the state.

The influential Texas Farm Bureau, which spent more than $650,000 on races in 2010, may endorse far fewer candidates than normal this year because of the little time to screen candidates, said Jim Sartwelle, the organization's director of public policy.

"We're in complete chaos right now," Sartwelle said. "We're at a total standstill."

So are election workers. Minority groups have paraded elections administrators from the state's largest counties into federal court to testify about the daunting task of organizing a primary on only weeks' notice. Millions of voter registration cards tailored to the new map would have to be mailed, and workers would need to go street-by-street to check precinct numbers and programing thousands of ballots.

Elections workers statewide want 12 weeks' notice before a primary but are more likely to only get six or seven, said Jackie Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator in San Antonio. More than a quarter of the 875,000 registered voters there will be moved into new subgroups or precincts, she said.

Those preparations will be made even tougher — and more costly — if Texas settles on a split primary: one for the presidential nomination and the other for the rest of the ballot. The Texas Democratic Party submitted in a filing this week that it wouldn't oppose a split primary if the state picked up the tab.

Larger counties around Dallas and San Antonio say those costs would exceed $1 million. Officials from smaller, cash-strapped rural counties have testified they might have to lay off employees to cover the costs of holding split elections.

"The workload on this just feels monumental," Callanen said. "We've never had such a tight turnaround."

With the entire state stuck in political purgatory, even frustrated Democrats are borrowing tactics from Republican Gov. Rick Perry — a former presidential contender — in hopes of a final fix.

Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis urged Texans this week to do what Perry proclaimed when the state was gripped by drought last year. He asked them to pray.

"I try never to pray for selfish purposes such as personal success or happiness," Davis wrote on Facebook "But there are some things that are true representations of the 'greater good.'"

By Salon Staff

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