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11 Weeks Could Change Voting Results in Texas

A voter casts a ballot in Travis County on November 2, 2010.
Photo by Marjorie Cotera for the Texas Tribune
A voter casts a ballot in Travis County on November 2, 2010.


The Texas primaries will be held on March 6 next year, with runoffs more than two months later, on May 22.

Maybe. If the federal courts decide redistricting maps should be redrawn before the voting starts, some of those primary contests could be moved to May.

There’s little time left to rework the maps — candidates started filing for the March primaries this week — so it’s possible that delaying some of the primaries is the only way to put new maps in place.

The state asked the Supreme Court to block congressional and legislative elections using political maps recently drawn by a three-judge panel in San Antonio. Lawyers on the other side of that (“side” being a loose term that corrals everyone on a long list of lawyers and plaintiffs who sued over redistricting) say that the election season is upon us and that the primaries should proceed using the court’s maps.

Attorney General Greg Abbott says the current deadlines shouldn’t worry the judges. In his request for a stay of the court-ordered maps, Abbott suggested that any primaries that require new maps could be held in May. Presidential and other primaries unaffected by the maps could still be in March, giving Texas voters a rare chance to figure into the electoral calculations for the nation’s highest office.

The rest? The state used to hold elections in May, and there’s plenty of time between then and the general elections in November. No sweat.

On a calendar, those March and May dates are 11 weeks apart. But politically, it’s a chasm.

Presidential elections draw larger numbers of voters. Texas elections have entirely different patterns when presidential races are on the ballot and when they’re not. Abbott’s proposal could separate the congressional and legislative primaries from the presidential primary, significantly affecting turnout and potentially changing the result.

In 2008, when Barack Obama and John McCain were at the top of the bill, the average Republican running statewide in Texas beat the average Democratic opponent by 8.6 percentage points. All of the statewide offices remained in Republican hands, as did both houses of the Legislature and the state’s congressional delegation. Turnout, according to state election officials, was 8.1 million.

In 2010, with Rick Perry and Bill White at the top of the ticket in the governor’s race, the average Republican beat the average statewide Democrat by 23.9 percentage points. All of the statewide elections went to Republicans, as did the majorities in the Legislature and the congressional pack. Turnout, according to the Texas secretary of state, was five million.

That difference in turnout was a significant factor in another disparity: the down-ballot results. After the 2008 election, the Texas House had 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats. After the 2010 election, it was 101 to 49. In the congressional delegation, 3 of 32 seats moved from the Democratic column to the Republican column, giving Republicans a 23 to 9 advantage. Turnout certainly wasn’t the only factor; 2010 was also a stinging reprimand to a Democratic administration. But Texas Republicans, always strong, are stronger in nonpresidential election years.

Getting off the couch to vote is the measure of a true partisan. Everybody votes in presidential years, but partisans vote when less intense voters — often more moderate voters — stay home.

“Conservatives do show up in primaries like that,” said Senator Kel Seliger, Republican of Amarillo, who is chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee. “We know it’s going to be older voters. We certainly know it’s going to be the most conservative of voters.”

March 6 is more likely to be a high turnout date. It’s a presidential year. Two Texans are on the Republican ballot: Perry and Ron Paul. May 22 is more likely to be low turnout, with a smattering of runoffs from the March round and only legislative and congressional races to attract voters.

The partisans would show up, just as they do for other local and runoff elections that the rest of us skip. That’s what partisans do.

And given the choice between more and less partisan candidates — and nobody else to dilute their votes — the partisans will choose candidates who are most like them: partisans.


Ross Ramsey is managing editor of The Texas Tribune and continues as editor of Texas Weekly, the premier newsletter on government and politics in the Lone Star State, a role he's had since September 1998. Texas Weekly was a print-only journal when he took the reins in 1998; he switched it to a subscription-based, internet-only journal by the end of 2004 without a significant loss in subscribers. As Texas Weekly's primary writer for 11 years, he turned out roughly 2 million words in more than 500 editions, added an online library of resources and documents and items of interest to insiders, and a daily news clipping service that links to stories from papers across Texas. Before joining Texas Weekly in September 1998, Ramsey was associate deputy comptroller for policy with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, also working as the agency's director of communications. Prior to that 28-month stint in government, Ramsey spent 17 years in journalism, reporting for the Houston Chronicle from its Austin bureau and for the Dallas Times Herald, first on the business desk in Dallas and later as the paper's Austin bureau chief. Prior to that, as a Dallas-based freelance business writer, he wrote for regional and national magazines and newspapers. Ramsey got his start in journalism in broadcasting, working for almost seven years covering news for radio stations in Denton and Dallas.