Virus outbreak delays elections; San Benito moves vote to November

MGN Online

SAN BENITO — Hotly contested city and school elections in San Benito might draw higher voter turnout and a boost in mail-in ballots.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, the City Commission and school board have agreed to postpone their May 2 elections, setting them up for the Nov. 3 general election based on Gov. Greg Abbott’s recommendation.

At City Hall and in the school district’s boardroom, officials have delayed the elections to comply with federal guidelines and state and local orders aimed at maintaining social distancing while limiting group gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, officials have expressed concern that fear of contracting the virus could have kept some voters from going to the polls.

“ It definitely would have impacted who voted in person,” Cameron County Elections Administrator Remi Garza said.

On March 18, Abbott issued a proclamation allowing the state’s governments to postpone their May 2 elections, warning “the novel coronavirus poses an imminent threat of disaster.”

“ I strongly encourage local election officials to take advantage of these waivers and postpone their elections until November,” Abbott stated.

Voter turnout

Local officials are counting on the move to the November election, which coincides with the presidential election, to boost voter turnout.

“ Our hope, as we look to that November day, is we aren’t going to see restrictions such as stay-at-home orders — and the precautions we’re taking will be effective,” Garza said. “Presidential elections always have high turnout. We see a trend where people participating is increasing.”

Before the virus outbreak, Garza said he was projecting as many as 100,000 voters would go the polls to cast ballots in November’s general election.

“ This changes how we look at that,” he said, referring to the virus outbreak.

Voting changes

Now, Garza is preparing to oversee changes as voters go to the polls in November, when the COVID-19 virus could begin to reemerge during the start of the flu season.

“ How people vote is going to change,” he said.

As a result of the virus outbreak, Garza expects more voters to cast mail-in ballots.

Now, the law allows residents 65 and older to cast mail-in votes — or about 40,000 of the county’s 214,000 registered voters, he said.

Garza also expects more voters to cast early votes while fewer go to the polls on Election Day.

City election

Across town, voters are waiting for two of the most hotly contested elections in years.

In the city’s election, 11 candidates are running in four races.

Meanwhile, the county is charging the city $23,210 to run the election.

Mayor’s race

In the race for mayor, incumbent Ben Gomez, a parent educator with the San Benito school district, faces former Mayor Celeste Sanchez, a retired assistant superintendent whom he defeated three years ago.

The race heated up when City Commissioner Rick Guerra, a retired firefighter, resigned his Place 3 seat to run for the city’s highest elected position.

Place 3

In the race to fill Place 3’s one-year unexpired term, former Commissioner Steve Rodriguez, a trucking company owner, spars with Pedro Galvan, a pharmacist, and Joe Rodriguez, a retired computer analyst.

Place 1

In the race for Place 1, Commissioner Tony Gonzales, a retired postal worker who first won election in 2009, faces Rene Garcia, a Social Security Administration employee who serves as vice president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation and vice chairman of the San Benito Housing Authority.

Place 2

In a three-way scramble for the Place 2 seat, Commissioner Rene Villafranco, an official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who first won election in 2009, is running against Daniel Cortez, a retired police officer, and Deborah Ann Morales, vice president of Texas Funeral Associates.

School board election

In the school district’s election, 11 candidates are running in five races.

Meanwhile, the county is charging the school district $35,970 to run the election.

Place 4

In one of the election’s most heated races, school board President Orlando Lopez, a radiology director, faces Jack Garcia, the district’s former longtime after-school program director who’s served as a former city mayor, in the race for the board’s Place 4 seat.

Place 5

Meanwhile, incumbent M.L. Garcia, a retired teacher who is Garcia’s aunt, squares off with Rudy Corona, an AT&T technician, in the race for Place 5.

Place 1

In the race for Place 1, Baldemar Olivarez, a retired law enforcement officer who replaced former school board President Michael Vargas in December, faces Anna Garza Llanes, a home mortgage consultant.

Place 7

After spearheading a petition drive that led to Vargas’s suspension on the grounds of intoxication, Janie Lopez, a counselor, spars with Santiago Sanchez, general manager of a John Deere dealership, for the board’s Place 7 seat.

Place 6

In the race for Place 6, incumbent Victor Rosas, a retired firefighter, faces Joseph Galarza, a general contractor, and Ramiro Martin Moreno, a Rio Hondo school district principal.

fdelvalle@valleystar.com