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Some Texas Voters Shut Out Of Primary

Elvira Arredondo casts her vote on the first day of early voting Tuesday Feb. 19, 2008 in El Paso, Texas. Arredondo opted to vote in the Democratic primary. She was being assisted by a poll worker. (AP Photo/El Paso Times, Victor Calzada)
AP/V. Calzada, El Paso Times
Early voting in Texas ended late Friday, with the primary just days away.

Voting results as of Thursday have shown a large turnout among early voters - and demonstrably so among registered Democrats.

According to the Texas Secretary of State's election Web site, 717,469 Democrats have already cast ballots either in person or by mail. That's more than 9% of the state's 7,815,906 registered voters.

Among Republicans, 242,197 (or just over 3% of registered voters) have cast their votes early.

But as Tuesday's primary and caucus nears, with a decision on the Democratic nominee hanging in the balance, 21 Texas counties won't even be holding primaries.

Despite Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama barnstorming the state, three rural Panhandle counties will net them zero votes.

The Democrats aren't holding a primary in the sparsely-populated counties because there's no one to run an election there.

"There is no county chair so it's impossible to hold a primary," said Hector Nieto, a state Democratic Party spokesman. "The highest Democratic official has to administer the primary."

Armstrong County has about 1,300 registered voters. Most are Republicans, but County Judge Hugh Reed said he's disappointed that the Democratic Party couldn't muster enough interest to make a ballot.

He said this is the first time in his memory that there hasn't been a Democratic primary.

Reed, the first Republican to ever hold office in his small Panhandle county, said a handful of Democrats asked for ballots during early voting, only to be turned away.

"I believe they were curious to know why and what they could do about it so it doesn't happen again," Reed said.

In nearby Hansford County, where a little more than 3,000 folks are registered, there hasn't been a Democratic primary in about 16 years.

But it's not just Democrats who may feel marooned on Tuesday: Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain can forget about votes in 18 West and South Texas counties.

"The fact is that some of these very sparsely populated counties just don't have Republicans in them," said Talmadge Heflin, executive director of the Texas Republican Party. "They may have a few that vote, but there are no office holders and no candidates."

He said it's too bad that Republicans won't be able to vote for a presidential nominee in those counties, but "our primary process is solely for the purpose of nominating your candidate for the November election."

So Republicans in the Democratic strongholds along the border will have to wait until November to support a presidential candidate, when Texas may not be as pivotal.

Paul Stekler, a public affairs professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, said the lack of primaries probably won't matter in the long run.

"You win where the votes are," Stekler said. "If you don't have a county chair, and you don't have a primary, you probably don't have any Democrats."

As for Democratic delegates in the two-part election - most of the state's 193 delegates will be decided during the primary, while the remainder will be awarded in caucus - Stekler said the missing primaries would have an "almost minuscule impact."

"This will be an election on the Democratic side that is dependent on the unbelievable turnout in urban counties," Stekler said. "The Republican primary is kind of a done deal."