Final Countdown: Cameron County gets ready for early voting

Cameron County Elections Department Employees load up vehicles with boxes of unused voting ballots as early voting approaches along with Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Hearald)

Early voting begins in Texas on Tuesday, and this year’s election will make history no matter who wins the presidential race. With voter suppression tactics dominating the headlines in our traditionally low-voter turnout state, does Cameron County feel ready to cast its ballots with confidence?

The Cameron County Department of Elections and Voter Registration said that preparations are well underway to make sure that in-person voting sites are safe and that all voters — including those who wish to vote curbside — are accommodated to the best of their ability.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting mail-in ballot drop-off sites won’t affect the over 218,000 voters currently registered in Cameron County, said Elections Administrator Remi Garza.

That’s because Cameron has an official appointee to oversee the voting process versus a county clerk, which may have multiple branch offices. “We only have one office building that would have been able to accept those ballots as they were coming in,” said Garza.

“Prior to the governor’s proclamation, the state had told us that they could receive those ballots at any of their offices — it didn’t have to be a specific or main branch for the county clerk.”

The reversal from the governor reduced the number of locations for those counties — particularly at issue in Travis and Harris, both highly-populated, Democratic-leaning areas where drop-off lines are likely to be at issue.

The last day to apply for a ballot by mail is Oct. 23. Voters can drop off applications in person at 1050 E. Madison Street in Brownsville. They can also be mailed but must be received by the Oct. 23 deadline.

Those applications can be printed, picked up from the office on Madison Street, or can be requested from the Texas Secretary of State’s Office at .

Anyone with questions about the ballot by mail application or any other part of the voting process can call the department at (956) 544-0809 or email . More information is available at .

Several lawsuits in recent months sought to allow voters fearful of contracting COVID-19 the ability to use the disability category on vote by mail applications to receive a ballot, and although fear of contracting the virus does not qualify as a disability, voters can factor in their medical history when determining whether to submit an application.

If an application is filled out correctly, election officials have no authority to question a person’s marking of the disability category, or their disability status, according to Garza.

Voters fearful of coming into contact with COVID-19 at polling locations are able to use curbside voting, as well. Officials are encouraging anyone who doesn’t absolutely need to use the service to vote inside so as not to overwhelm the system, although it has been expanded through use of grants for the November election.

“We’ve taken steps to accommodate people who don’t feel comfortable walking into the polls or who are currently ill, or have difficulty walking,” said Garza.

Cameron County Elections Office holds their elections training on Friday at SET-B Lecture Hall at Texas Southmost College. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

The curbside voting option was also expanded during this year’s primaries, but the Center for Tech and Civic Life last month awarded a $1.8 million grant to Cameron County to facilitate the expansion of curbside voting last month, doubling the number of election workers at most polling sites, new equipment, and sanitation supplies.

An additional $250,973 grant announced by former California Governor and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger through the USC Schwarzenegger Institute is being used by the county to fund two “super-center” voting sites that can handle 20-24,000 voters at the Brownsville Events Center and the Harlingen Convention Center.

In Cameron County, voters use paper ballots. Guidelines from the Secretary of State recommend that voters bring their own writing utensils, however, Garza said the county will be providing pens that are sanitized after each use.

Staff at polling sites will have a large box of pens at the start of the process where the voter will be given a pen to sign the combination form, mark the ballot, and then drop the pen off so it can be sanitized and later used in the process again.

“They can use their own pen as long as it isn’t red. If they have a black pen, that would be preferred — and in ink, not gel, just because of the voting equipment,” Garza said.

Staff and volunteers are trained to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines with respect to the health and safety of a polling place. “We are controlling the entrance and exit so that people aren’t passing each other while they’re voting,” he added.

Hand sanitizer is being placed at entrances and exits so that people can sanitize before they vote and after.

All poll workers will be wearing masks or face shields and are given a health check each morning, or after any lengthy departure from a polling site. Their temperature is taken and any developing symptoms must be reported.

According to Garza, the county is finalizing sanitation kits to be distributed to each site. The department on Thursday received notice that Anheuser-Busch had made hand sanitizers available to the state, and that the allocation for Cameron County would be arriving shortly.

If you have requested a ballot by mail and don’t receive your ballot, the county can cancel your application so that you can vote at a regular polling place either in-person or through curbside service. Contact the department at (956) 544-0809 or with any questions or concerns.

Timing is everything, and if you’re worried your ballot has been lost, don’t hesitate to reach out to the department. Voters mailing in their ballots are also encouraged to do so as early as possible due to reported delays at the U.S. Postal Service.

Intimidation at polling sites has also been a potential concern at issue nationally following a statement by President Donald Trump during the first debate, in which he urged supporters to take to polling sites and “watch very carefully.”

Texas has official poll watchers and the process is regulated. Self-appointed poll watchers who operate outside of legal boundaries do not fall under that category.

Garza said the office has been in discussion with the District Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement to talk about some of the activities that could be illegal at, outside of, or near polling locations.

“I don’t anticipate we’ll have anything along those lines. Most people who will be poll watching will be from Cameron County. And they usually will have to represent the candidate or the local party,” Garza added.

Judges are being briefed as they are prior to every election on what poll watchers can and can’t do. Official poll watchers are observers, not coaches or referees.

“They’re simply there to observe and if they see anything, they can bring it to the attention of the judge, the candidate, and hopefully to the elections office as well,” Garza said.