Sunday, January 6, 2008

Definition of democracy is slippery in 17 counties

By Sara Inés Calderón - San Antonio Express-News - Jan. 5, 2008

Ben Briscoe is a Republican in Democrat's clothing.
Frio County has been without a Republican Party chairman since 2005. So Briscoe said he and other conservative voters in Pearsall register as Democrats.

Otherwise, he said, they would have no way to influence local elections that have been largely decided in Democratic primaries.

For much of the 20th century, Democrats ruled the state with little or no competition. It's rare now for Texas counties not to have both parties in place, although in many places the competition is still one-sided.

Seventeen Texas counties lack a party chairman and therefore won't hold primary elections.

Legally, the primaries are set up by the county party chairmen, so Republicans can't hold primaries in the 14 counties without a GOP chairman and Democrats are likewise out of the picture in three counties in the Panhandle.

State party organizations can't do anything about it except try to recruit someone, but spokesmen for both parties said they tend to leave that to the grass roots.

"If somebody really wanted to vote in the primary, they could contact the party and we could appoint them county chair to administer the Democratic election there," said Hector Nieto of the Texas Democratic Party.

There's almost no reason to have a party chairman in counties with a sparse Republican population, said Hans Klingler, spokesman for the Republican Party of Texas, although he added that 14 empty county chairmanships was not an "optimal" situation.

This year's unpredictable presidential race makes the lack of a primary more irksome than usual for the handful of partisans who won't be able to cast a primary ballot because of where they live.

But as with Frio County, voters in counties dominated by one party are drawn to that party's primary for its local impact, whatever their underlying loyalties.

"If you're not a registered Democrat, then you don't get to participate in the political process (in Frio County) as a rule," Briscoe said. "The local elections are determined in the Democratic primaries."

Keith Dennis, pastor at Redemption Baptist Church in Devine and former Republican chairman of Frio County, agreed.

"You just about have to vote in the Democratic Party in order to have any input in who gets elected to the county," he said.

In 2005, Dennis decided he couldn't handle both his congregation and his duties as chairman, and resigned.

"I tried to get somebody in the county to take it over, but I couldn't get any response," Dennis said.

Frio County, like others in predominantly Democratic South Texas, has never really had much of a Republican presence, he said.

Both parties claim they are trying to fill the 17 vacancies, but the situation smacked of disenfranchisement to some observers.

"What does that say for democracy?" said Sharon Navarro, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

A few rural counties could make a difference in a tight statewide race, and voters in traditionally Democratic or Republican areas could cross over, influenced by everything from the war in Iraq to the housing market to immigration, she said.

"There are new variables in this election," Navarro said. "You have people who are willing to cross party lines because of war, gas prices, Social Security — all these things are coming into play."

Although the two parties are complying with state law, Richard Gambitta, also a UTSA political science professor, maintains that their actions run counter to the fundamentals of democracy.

"The parties have an obligation to provide access to the ballot to those who want to vote," he said. "Should I have any more right to choose the nominees for the Republican or Democratic ballot if I live in a Democratic area as opposed to a Republican area?"

A solution is simple, he said: The state parties could simply mail ballots to their voters in the affected counties.

Debbie Avery, originally from Frio County, helped organize the first modern-era Republican Party there in 1960. She laughed when asked if a Republican had ever been elected to office by the time she moved away in 2000.

Both she and her husband were active GOP members for 60 years, she said. Pretty much every other activist she could remember has since died.

Briscoe thinks even a Republican Party leader wouldn't change the situation in Frio County. Since he can still vote for his national choices in the November election, he wouldn't register as a Republican and risk losing his local impact.

"I don't see how this is going to change," Briscoe said. "It's been Democratic since the beginning of time, just about."

Read more in the San Antonio Express-News

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