Redistricting remains stuck in a sort of judicial black box in San Antonio — only the judges know what might happen and when — but an important deadline comes this Saturday. Election administrators told the judges earlier this month that they need congressional and legislative maps by March 3 if they’re going to hold primary elections on May 29.
If the maps aren’t ready, the next available election date appears to be June 26. Either of those early summer dates would push the primary runoffs into the dog days of summer; July 31 in the first case, and Aug. 28 in the second.
One sign that they might be close: Late Monday, the judges asked lawyers for the political parties to file advisories by early Wednesday afternoon detailing any temporary changes that would need to be ordered in the state’s election law to make the May election possible.
The lawyers working on House maps have been pushing back and forth, primarily on three districts, and haven’t produced an accord. And congressional maps, several lawyers have said, will have to be drawn by the three federal judges in San Antonio, because the parties can’t seem to find common ground.
In their last conference, two weeks ago, the three federal judges handling the case told the lawyers that the primaries won’t take place any earlier than May 29. They instructed the political parties and the state to work out the details — things like filing deadlines and early voting dates — for an election on that date.
That came after election administrators told the court that trying to force an April election so late in the game would set at least some of the state’s counties up for failure.
The lawyers agreed to an interim Senate map, which is another to say that they settled their differences, for now, over the district represented by Democrat Wendy Davis, of Fort Worth. The result is a Republican district, but Davis called it a win because it’s identical to what she has now — and what she had when she upset Republican incumbent Sen. Kim Brimer in 2008. Each side thinks it can win it in this year’s election, which would make it the rarest of things in the Texas Senate: a district that is politically competitive outside of the primaries.
When they last stuck their heads up in public, lawyers working on the House maps were concentrating on three districts: HD-81 in West Texas, HD-117 in Bexar County and HD-144 in Harris County. Some of the plaintiffs also want to restore voting precincts around the state that were split by the Legislature.
The congressional maps are messier and will probably have to be settled by the judges. The districts that are publicly in question include CD-23, which runs from San Antonio to El Paso; CD-25, currently occupied by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, and drawn in various plans as either a safe Democratic or a safe Republican district, either contained in Travis County or splattered across the map from Hays County north to Tarrant County; CD-27 in Nueces County; CD-33, a new district in Dallas and Tarrant counties; and CD-35, which would run, in some iterations, from Bexar to Travis. That last district would allow Latinos to elect a member of Congress, but would cut into Doggett’s current district — a prospect that found objections in some of Travis County’s minority communities.
The judges are trying to guess — in a way that will satisfy the U.S. Supreme Court — at what another panel of federal judges is going to do with Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act. That Washington court has said it will take until sometime next month to rule on whether the state undermined existing minority opportunity districts. The judges here also have to incorporate their own findings under the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution, and do it all in a way that puts maps on the table by Saturday if they want to make that May 29 primary date happen.
If the primary is on May 29, Texas will be the seventh-to-last state to vote on presidential candidates. The last state in the lineup is Utah, which holds its primary on June 26. That also happens to be the next most likely date for the Texas election if the maps aren’t in place in time for a May 29 vote. In case it comes up next time you’re playing Trivial Pursuit, the other states that vote in June all vote on the 5th: California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota.