(Washingtonpost.com) Supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton are worried that convoluted delegate rules in Texas could water down the impact of strong support for her among Hispanic voters there, creating a new obstacle for her in the must-win presidential primary contest.
Several top Clinton strategists and fundraisers became alarmed after learning of the state's unusual provisions during a closed-door strategy meeting this month, according to one person who attended.
What Clinton aides discovered is that in certain targeted districts, such as Democratic state Sen. Juan Hinojosa's heavily Hispanic Senate district in the Rio Grande Valley, Clinton could win an overwhelming majority of votes but gain only a small edge in delegates. At the same time, a win in the more urban districts in Dallas and Houston -- where Sen. Barack Obama expects to receive significant support -- could yield three or four times as many delegates.
"What it means is, she could win the popular vote and still lose the race for delegates," Hinojosa said yesterday. "This system does not necessarily represent the opinions of the population, and that is a serious problem."
The disparity in delegate distribution is just one of the unusual aspects of Texas's complex system for apportioning delegates. The scheme has been in use for two decades but is coming under increased scrutiny because the March 4 presidential contest is the first in years that gives the state a potentially decisive voice in choosing the party's nominee.
Under rules described in the 37-page Texas delegate selection plan, two-thirds of the state's 228 delegates will be chosen based on the vote in each of 31 state Senate districts. The remaining delegates will be chosen based in part on the outcome of caucuses held on election night after the polls close.
Texas Democratic Party officials said there is a good reason that some senatorial districts yield two or three delegates while others yield seven or, in one Austin district, eight. The numbers are determined by a formula that is based on the number of voters in each district who cast ballots for Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) in the 2004 presidential campaign and for Chris Bell, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2006.
The higher the turnout in each district in those years, the more delegates the district will get to select this year, explained Boyd Richie, the state party chairman.
"It's not that anyone's trying to penalize anyone," Richie said. "That's the last thing I want to do. What I want to do is encourage people to come back and vote. We want to have everybody participate."
But Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., a Clinton supporter who represents the heavily Hispanic southern tip of Texas, said the party's formula fails to account for areas where general-election turnout may have been low but turnout for competitive primaries was much higher.
He said his district, which will yield three delegates on March 4, fits that description. Sen. Mario V. Gallegos Jr., another Clinton supporter whose largely Hispanic district will yield just three delegates, says his follows that pattern as well.
"We usually don't have contested general-election contests here," Gallegos said. "I've always questioned that formula, but I've always been given the same answers: 'That's the rules.' I think we need to look at it. I think there's a disparity there that we need to work out for future races."
He noted that the same turnout-based formula that determines how many delegates emerge from the primary vote will also dictate how many delegates can be won in the caucuses -- further diminishing the influence of voters in those areas.
The caucuses have also given rise to a separate concern, according to several top Texas Democrats interviewed last week. Because the state's Democratic Party has been out of power for years, leaders have struggled to find precinct chairs to oversee all of the 8,000 locations where caucuses will be held.
If it is time for the caucus and there is no precinct chair, party officials decided, the task of overseeing the vote will fall to the first person who collects the packet of materials used to run the caucus.
"The first person in the door picks it up and controls it," said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, a Clinton supporter who represents the El Paso area. "So the rules are designed to create a race to the packet. You can imagine what that might look like."
Party officials said most of the duties involved in running the events are routine and are clearly spelled out in the rules provided. But there are instances in which the person chairing the event can influence the outcome, party officials said. For instance, the rules say that only people who vote March 4 can attend that evening's caucus events. If a caucusgoer says he voted but does not show up on the rolls, the organizer has the authority to include or dismiss him.
Hinojosa saw another reason for Clinton to be concerned about the caucuses: The working-class voters who have typically favored her candidacy could be too tired or too busy to vote during the day and then return after 7 p.m. to attend a caucus.
"Anytime you require additional steps, that means extra effort, and that's particularly hard on working families," Hinojosa said.
While Richie said he recognizes those concerns, he does not think Texas will lack enthusiastic voters and caucusgoers.
Early voting, which typically makes up one-third of the ballots cast, will begin Tuesday. That could help reduce crowding at the polls March 4, but Richie says he is not sure what to expect.
"I think all the old models are out the window," he said. "I expect we're going to set a new state record."
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