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Voting sites expected to open in Panhandle on Tuesday, despite wildfires

By Karen Brooks Harper and Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune

Voting sites expected to open in Panhandle on Tuesday, despite wildfires” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Voters in the Texas Panhandle will be heading to the polls on Tuesday amid historic wildfires, casting ballots in a handful of high-stakes primary races as more than a million acres continue to burn and emergency officials order mass evacuations.

Candidates continued their campaigns at a subdued pace in the final days before Super Tuesday, while state elections officials said they expect voting to go smoothly despite the fire — which shuttered some polling places for a day or so during early voting last week.

“There have been very limited disruptions, and that’s due in large part to the absolute resilience and planning” of county election officials, said Alicia Pierce, spokesperson for the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

The largest wildfire in Texas history has killed thousands of livestock and incinerated crops and structures across nearly 1.1 million acres in the Panhandle. At least two people have died.

Early voting so far has been on par with previous years in the major voting areas, for the most part — although a snowstorm in the region last week put a damper on the numbers Friday, the last day to cast a ballot before election day.

The Panhandle includes half a dozen House districts, two Senate seats and two Congressional districts.

At least three of the House districts are in areas affected by the wildfires. One contest pits four Republicans against each other in a solid GOP district currently represented by the retiring state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo — a high-profile race in which former President Donald Trump has endorsed. State reps. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, and Ken King, R-Canadian, face primary challenges as well in areas affected by the fire.

Candidates in the affected areas pivoted their heated primary campaigns to varying degrees, either to deal with the disaster at hand or, as one incumbent said, out of respect for constituents who may have more on their minds than hearing from a politician.

Campaign officials for Cindi Bulla, one of four Republicans vying for an open House seat representing north Amarillo and six other counties near the Oklahoma border, said they stopped their blockwalking and paused a text messaging promotion to voters — both to clear the airwaves for emergency communications and out of respect for the families.

Texas state Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, dialed back the activity and focused on pitching in for neighboring counties that had it worse than his south Amarillo district saw.

“People’s attention is on that fire, understandably, as it should be,” said Smithee, who faces primary challenger Jamie Haynes on Tuesday. “And so from our standpoint, we just kind of had to pull off the campaign for two or three days to try to help where we could.”

King is running in one of the hardest hit districts — which covers 17 counties to the south and east of Amarillo.

King, who is running against Karen Post, had to briefly evacuate his home in Canadian, a town that was at one point surrounded by fire, campaign consultants said.

He was so busy responding to the disaster in his district as its incumbent elected official that he wasn’t able to attend a visit by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday, Smithee said.

His Facebook page is promoting an event in his hometown by the U.S. Department of Agriculture aimed at helping ranchers and livestock producers who were affected by the fire. It’s happening on Super Tuesday.

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