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Plaintiffs seek to protect Doggett’s seat in redistricting hearing

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

A number of plaintiffs are closing ranks around Austin Congressman Lloyd Doggett in an effort to preserve the existing Congressional District 25.


Tuesday’s hearing before a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio produced a number of surprises: At this point, the practical date for the Texas primary, according to election officials, is May 29. A split primary with existing precinct lines could put a presidential primary on April 24, but the state has no statutory authority to pay for it. And the map drafted by the court this week would still require preclearance from the Department of Justice.


Of course, Republicans want to speed up that process so Texas might play a role in the selection of a nominee for President. That could include tightening up filing deadlines, completing ballot draws more quickly and maneuvering around the 45 days required for active military ballots, possibly by extending canvass deadlines.


If there were money to pay for that, it could be done. Meanwhile, a slew of election officials, all toting a similar one-page election calendar summary, were in the San Antonio chamber gnawing their fingernails over the difficulty of an April primary.


“Which laws do you want me to break?” Bexar county election official Jacqui Callanen asked bluntly during questioning on compressed timelines.


And, it would appear, a May primary has its price. Travis County’s estimates are that a primary would cost $722,000, with state reimbursements of $416,000 and county costs of $306,000. If that’s followed by a runoff, the total cost of the primary would be $520,000, with reimbursements of $356,000 and county costs of $164,000. In Bexar County, opening the schools on summer break for a July runoff would cost the county just over $200,000.


May primary dates also could affect municipal and school board elections. A primary scheduled for May 22, for example, might interfere with some municipal elections. Austin’s City Council election is scheduled for May 12.


A May 22 primary might require moving municipal elections from May 12 to May 5.


And a number of election administrators insisted a turnaround between an April 24 primary and early May municipal elections would be difficult to do, given the need to program and re-use voting machines.


The concept of coalition districts – where minorities have an aligned interest to elect a candidate of their choice – will be a key point of contention of Tuesday. The state is convinced coalition districts need not be protected. A representative from the Department of Justice at the hearing appeared inclined to support the concerns from plaintiffs over Congressional District 25, mainly because the test of “not insubstantial” claims, a low bar, appeared to be met.


Attorney Renea Hicks, who represents the Travis County, said the opinion of the Supreme Court clearly states that existing coalition districts should be protected. Gary Bledsoe of the NAACP, who spoke last at Tuesday’s hearing, appeared inclined to agree with Hicks’ assessment.


“We believe there is still room for coalition districts,” Bledsoe told the panel, speaking of Congressional District 25. “We think they are very possible.”


At the end of the hearing, Chief Judge Orlando Garcia had directions for the plaintiffs and state: Resolve the state Senate map on last night. The state and plaintiffs are only one seat apart on minority representation on the House map – 50 for the state and 51 for the plaintiffs – which Garcia labeled as a “doable” compromise. And the court would talk some more about Doggett’s district on today.

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