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Slow Redistricting Lowers Clout of Texas Voters

Image by Todd Wiseman, Texas Tribune

In a parallel political universe — one in which redistricting maps were in place and elections were on schedule — Texas would be getting national attention right now.

The four survivors in the Republican presidential primary race would be hitting all the stops on the barbecue circuit, wearing jeans and boots, raising money, posing for pictures and saying remarkable things to be played over and over on TV.

Instead, the earliest possible date for our primary elections will come after 34 states and territories have already spoken, either through primaries or caucuses. It could come later, leaving Texas to join 13 states that hold presidential primaries in May and June.

Just think of it. If the federal courts had approved the maps drawn by the Legislature, or those drawn by a panel of federal judges in San Antonio last year, we’d be less than two weeks away from early voting.

Texas would be the biggest state on the biggest day of the primary season, Super Tuesday, with 155 Republican delegates at stake. Ten other important and unimportant states share the March 6 date: Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia. But Texas, already a landmark on the treasure map used by candidates looking for money, would be the prize.

Our mailboxes would be full. Our televisions would spew political ads. Neighbors would sneak out in the middle of the night to steal one another’s yard signs. Two dozen redistricting lawyers — a conservative estimate — would be out of work. Or they might be spending their time fighting over the state’s new voter identification law.

The political parties would be sweating over primary elections and the precinct, county and Senate district elections that follow. Instead, they’re sweating about whether the primaries will be held in time to populate their state conventions in early June.

Presidential races don’t always make it this far into the calendar. The primaries four years ago made news for the simple reason that the Democratic nomination wasn’t settled by early March. Turnout rocketed in that state primary, as you might expect. But the excitement of the fight was contagious, and turnout was far above normal in the Republican primary, even though John McCain had his nomination sewed up by then.

Now it’s close again, but Texas couldn’t keep its date with the candidates.

If it had, the state would be in the thick of things. Because of the redistricting battles, candidates still have the opportunity to add their names to the ballot, change races or drop out. Without that litigation, every name that was on the ballot as of late December would still be there.

Rick Perry’s name, for instance.

The governor would face the possibly humiliating results of a referendum on his current popularity. He’s out of the race, but he’d be on the ballot, offering voters a chance to give him a political wedgie.

The remaining Republicans, looking for any advantage, would be begging for endorsements from Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and anyone named Bush. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul would be under pressure to show some strength in a statewide race at home — strength he didn’t show either as a Libertarian running for president in 1988 or as a Republican running in 2008. He got a trace vote in that first election (0.56 percent), and 4.87 percent in the second, or less than 1 vote in 20.

That’s just one race. Everyone would know there is a race for U.S. Senate in Texas. That bit of information is currently limited to political nerds, campaigns and donors. That showdown will still happen, but a later race or a split primary could cut the size of the audience.

The same is true for congressional candidates, judges, state legislators, sheriffs and so on. Big events are just different. Big elections attract voters who don’t always vote, changing the results or at least raising that possibility.

Back in this universe, there are no political maps. Candidates can still erase their names from the ballot and avoid a hazing.

The earliest possible date for a presidential primary is in April, and it could still be split from other primary elections.

Too bad. Texas could have had a say in this.

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.
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