Published November 29, 2006
WASHINGTON – Texas is asking the Justice Department to approve Dec. 12 for a congressional runoff election — a date opposed by a Latino civil rights group because it is a religious day for many Hispanics.
The runoff between incumbent Republican Henry Bonilla and Democrat Ciro Rodriguez, a former congressman, is in Texas' 23rd congressional district, which includes portions of San Antonio. The district was redrawn after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled previous boundaries discriminated against Latino voters.
Dec. 12 is the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico and Latin America. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) wants the election held on Dec. 19, arguing that the earlier date discriminates against Hispanic voters and benefits Bonilla, whose support among Latinos has eroded.
States like Texas that have had a history of voting discrimination against minority groups are required under federal law to get Justice Department approval, known as preclearance, of election changes or decisions.
Texas officials, who filed the date request Tuesday, said the state doesn't need federal approval because a court ordered the runoff election set for the earliest time possible.
Scott Haywood, spokesman for the Texas secretary of state, said he doesn't believe his office knew the date was a Latino holy day, but putting the runoff back another week would push the election into Hanukkah, which begins at sundown Dec. 15, and close to Christmas.
"The date ordered is fully compliant with the law," he said.
Luis Vera Jr., national counsel for LULAC and Rodriguez's campaign treasurer in the runoff, said he will ask the Justice Department to reject Dec. 12.
"The vast majority of Hispanics in South Texas are Latinos and they honor that day," Vera said. "They way it works, they go to Mass, go to work and then go to Mass. They fast. They pray. They are in church all night. ... Voting is way at the bottom of the list." Some communities also hold processions and family gatherings.
After the district was redrawn to restore Latino voting strength, the congressional race drew eight contenders. Bonilla led with 49 percent of the vote, just under the 50 percent required to win. That prompted the runoff with Rodriguez, the next highest vote-getter at 20 percent.