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Federal panel criticizes state for allowing counties to redraw precincts

Monday, November 7, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Travis County was one of a dozen counties that got caught in the crossfire last week between a federal three-judge panel in San Antonio and the Texas Secretary of State’s office.


During court proceedings on Thursday in a hearing to discuss how to draw interim Congressional election maps, Assistant Attorney General David Mattax informed the court that a number of larger urban counties, including Travis, had gone ahead and drawn new precinct lines based upon the Congressional maps approved by the Legislature.


That raised the ire of the three-judge panel, which had specifically enjoined the counties from redrawing precinct lines, with the understanding that the court would likely make changes when interim maps were released.


“How did this happen?” a clearly unhappy Judge Xavier Rodriguez asked. “We were trying to avoid all that time and expense of doing it twice.”


Plaintiffs attorneys, who had discourage the court from adopting the state-drawn maps, also were agitated about the redrawn precincts, fearful it would give the state’s maps greater weight and an unfair advantage.


“I would urge the court not to give any advantage to the state, to either of the plans that have been adopted by the state,” attorney Jose Garza, representing the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, told the court. “They shouldn’t benefit from the misconduct of some.”


Travis County, represented by attorney Renea Hicks, had argued for a Congressional district anchored in Travis County, rather than the state plan, which cuts the county into five pieces. African-Americans, Latinos and whites act as a coalition in their voting patterns in Travis County, he said. The state countered that Travis County was divided in order to create a majority minority district in Central Texas.


The court has adjusted filing deadlines to open on Nov. 28 and close on Dec. 15, giving judges additional time to weigh alternatives and draw their own map. The judges gave no indication whether they would consider the state-drawn maps or how much weight they would give to alternatives proposed by various plaintiffs.


Drawing for order on the ballot has been pushed back to Dec. 20. Voter registration certificates, adjusted with new boundaries, will have to be mailed out to prospective voters on or before Jan. 13.


Travis County approved its new precinct boundary lines in early October with the help of an outside consultant. During the discussion of the item, Deece Eckstein from Intergovernmental Relations told commissioners that some changes might be necessary if the map was adjusted.


“I believe . . .  that there’s a 50 percent chance that the current Congressional map does not meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, and there’s a chance that the new plan will change the boundaries in Travis County,” Eckstein said at the time. “If they do change congressional boundaries in Travis County, then we would have to come back to the court and see about reconciling our voter precinct maps with those congressional maps and then the court at that time could decide whether it wanted to revisit the Commissioner precinct maps or the JP and constable precinct maps.”


Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt told her colleagues it was far better to have a starting point for reconciling precincts when maps were finally approved. Voting precincts are redrawn in order to make sure that no precinct is split when it comes to representation. Each precinct has one Congressional member, one commissioner, one justice of the piece and one constable.


Eckstein said it would take a couple of additional weeks to redraw the precinct maps if boundaries are adjusted in the interim maps. The biggest problem may be finding voting locations for adjusted precincts. Interim maps would likely be redrawn again in 2013 by the Legislature.

At the court hearing in San Antonio, an email from the Secretary of State’s office was produced that appeared to encourage counties to move forward with redrawing precincts if they had already started the process. “You may proceed in a manner in which the county thinks is most efficient and places your county in a position to be able finalize county election precinct lines when a final preclearance decision becomes available,” according to the email.


On Friday, Rodriguez chastised the Secretary of State’s office for the advice, which was approved by the Attorney General’s office. Rodriguez said “county officials are wasting money by working on precinct maps when we, in all likelihood, will have to draw interim maps. The D.C. court will not give preclearance in a timely manner … (and that) your work may be in peril.”


Last month, Eckstein told commissioners about a dozen changes were made to the voting precincts to accommodate new maps. Those changes moved about 377 people. Eckstein said the county, whenever possible, would try to minimize the re-numbering of voting tabulation districts.

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