Happy Primary Day! And May the Odds Be Ever In Your Favor!

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Big news late Friday afternoon from Panem, aka Texas: the maps are in for the 2016 election.

However, big news does not mean good news for Texas voters, at least not for some Texas voters.

On Friday, a panel of three federal judges ruled that the current maps for Texas Congressional and State House districts will be in effect for the 2016 election. These maps are being challenged in court by a group of plaintiffs that include LULAC, the NAACP, MALC, the United States of America. (That’s right. The United States of America is a plaintiff in this case.) The suit was filed because these maps fail to adequately reflect the changes in Texas population found in the 2010 Census, in particular the fact that 90% of the increase in Texas population was among people of color, and a group of the plaintiffs filed a motion in October requesting that the maps not be used and that new maps drawn for 2016. The Friday order denied that motion.

The judges themselves summarized the ruling best:

The court finds that the status quo should not be altered.

So what exactly is the status quo when it comes to Texas Congressional and State House districts? The current maps, which will now be in place through the 2016 election, were originally drawn by another three-judge panel from San Antonio panel in 2012. They were conceived of as a temporary replacement for the racially-biased maps approved by the 81st Texas Legislature in 2011. The original maps–the ones the Lege drew and approved in 2011–were found to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act, so new maps were necessary and the panel drew them for 2012. But in a ninja-worthy move, in 2013, the Lege approved the court-drawn maps, so the “temporary” maps became the official district maps.  We then proceeded to the current round of litigation.

Confused yet?

Even the judges are at pains to make it clear that Friday’s ruling does not mean that the maps are approved.:

The plans are being used on an interim basis only, and nothing in this order should be construed as a ruling on the merits of any claims, causes of action, requests for relief, or defenses that have been asserted in this consolidated action.

OK. According to the judges, the maps are not approved, but we’re going to use them anyway. Filing period, primary and runoffs can all go on as regularly scheduled. Who cares if there’s still a question of violating thousands of Texans right to vote? Please tell us about that magnificent dress, Katniss.

Two things to keep in mind:

  1. The judges clearly wanted to avoid a repeat of the 2012 primary debacle. In case you don’t remember, in 2012, the primary date was delayed twice by a panel of judges from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, finally taking place on May 29th. The panel was busy drawing the maps we’ll use again next year. That delayed primary is what gave Ted Cruz the extra time he needed in his campaign against then-Lt. Governor David Dewhurst.
  2. The 2016 primary is incredibly important to the Texas GOP. Texas Republicans lost the chance to have a major impact on the 2012 presidential nomination when the primary was moved from Super Tuesday. This year, the stakes are even higher. March 1 is the so-called SEC primary, the first day of multi-state voting with primaries predominantly in the South. It’s the big day for Texas Republicans to assert their power against the outsized influence of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. And guess who’s got the most skin in the game on March 1? None other than Ted Cruz. Interesting how this primary schedule business is so important to his fortunes.

In Texas, it feels like deja vu all over again. For the third time in a row, we’re heading into an election year using maps that were never meant to be permanent and that underrepresent people of color. The judges clearly stated that if the decision had come down to the balance of harm/threatened injury criteria for decision making, they would rule against the people whose voting rights are violated by the map in favor of the people who are going to vote in the primary:

Even if movants could show a likelihood of success on the merits, the Court must balance the need to protect voting rights that may be affected by the 2013 plans with the need to avoid the adverse effect on voting rights that comes with delay and confusion during election time. If the Court enjoined the 2013 enacted plans and imposed yet another set of interim plans for the 2016 election, the shifting district and precinct lines would leave candidates in limbo, voters confused, and election officials with the burden of implementing new maps in a timely manner with very limited resources. It would be extremely difficult to implement new interim plans without tremendous interruption to the 2016 election schedule. The balance of equities does not tip in movants’ favor.

Did you get that?

Something has changed since 2012, when the three judge panel delayed the Texas primary twice while it worked on interim maps that were supposed to limit harms to people of color. The panel based its ruled on the likelihood of the merits of the case last week, not the balance of harms, so this question of balancing harms is not the reason for the ruling. However, the panel’s view of the balance of harms shows a change in attitude toward voting rights that is worthy of President Snow.

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