Texas has a clock problem in 2021 because the state is almost certainly going to have to redraw district lines based on the results of the 2020 census, which are likely not going to be available until early autumn. A bill that just passed the Texas Senate aims to delay the upcoming 2022 midterm primaries to deal with the fact that the state is simply running out of time to do everything right.
Every ten years, the United States conducts a census of its residents for a variety of government purposes. One of the most important is the addition or subtraction of new congressional districts based on population changes. Texas has continued to grow since 2010, and experts believe we may add as many as three new districts, all of which will obviously need to be represented by new elected officials. The fight over these districts is always contentious, and after it was done in 2010 various voter rights groups took the state’s Republican leaders to court over possible gerrymandering.
“There will be litigation,” Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF told us in February. “The Texas Legislature does this every decade, and every decade we’ve had to go to the courts. Luckily, it has made a difference in changing the outcomes.”
The COVID pandemic impacted the census greatly, pushing back the results further and further. The expected report will come out long after the Texas legislature is expected to adjourn in May, meaning that they will have to come back for a special emergency session. That’s assuming they even adjourn as numerous big bills, including electric grid reformation and a controversial voting rights restricting protocol are moving slowly through the Legislature.
Even if the Legislature could get the redistricting fight done in a month, that would leave very little time for potential candidates to file to run. The first day that candidates can apply to be on the primary ballot in Texas is September 14, which is not even guaranteed to be after the census report is released. The final deadline is December 13, which would be cutting everything extremely close even if things go perfectly.
Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), the chair of the Redistricting Committee, apparently feels the same. She’s introduced Senate Bill 1822, which would give the Secretary of State the power to postpone the 2022 primaries and all filing dates if the redistricting process is not completed by November 1. The bill passed the Texas Senate unanimously and is now headed to the House Redistricting Committee. In all likelihood, it will pass the lower chamber, too.
However good an idea the bill is considering the ticking clock on the next election, it’s an interesting juxtaposition on what else is happening with election law in the Texas legislature. Many of the voting rights restrictions currently being debated upon are specifically about removing the power of government officials to adapt to new circumstances when it comes to managing election, such as instituting drive-thru voting or sending out mail-in vote applications. Handing the Secretary of State power to arbitrarily assign new election dates is something that would seem to be in direct opposition of the new voting restriction philosophies under consideration.
The 2022 election is likely to be a bloodbath no matter what happens to the dates. In addition to the new districts and the inevitable legal fight over whether their boundaries intentionally disenfranchise minority voters, the state’s upper Republican leadership is all up for re-election. Attorney General Ken Paxton in particular is vulnerable to a primary challenger as he is under federal investigation and indictment for fraud, and Governor Greg Abbott will have to contend with his handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Several prominent Texas voices, such as Texas Republican Party Chair Allen West, have already made noise about possibly primarying the governor from the right, meaning that the primary elections are liable to be very dynamic. The delay of that fight is only going to make the brawl even more desperate and chaotic.