Making it happen: County works to ensure smooth election during pandemic

Early voting clerks wear masks as they work together to seal unused voting ballots in their containers Thursday night following the daily closing of the early voting polling location inside the Brownsville Public Library Main Branch. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

 

It was in March when Remi Garza realized things were about to change.

As all signs began pointing to a coronavirus pandemic that wasn’t going away anytime soon, the Cameron County elections administrator and his team saw that they would have to take steps to protect poll workers and voters during the upcoming runoff election and even the Nov. 3 general election if the virus was still an issue.

“Having the July runoff to prepare and to strategize procedures really helped,” Garza said. “We got to see how it happened and what could be done and what would create unnecessary logjams in the process. … The turnout was higher than usual for a runoff but we knew it was at least five or six times less than what we were going to see in November.”

The department looked to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state for guidelines, and consulted the county’s emergency management coordinator and public health director to put together a plan for polling sites, he said.

“We talked to the party chairs to make sure that they were OK with what we were planning on doing, and then we moved forward, Garza said.

The way forward was clear based on information the department was receiving about best practices, so it was just a matter of implementing those and hunting down the resources to execute them, he said. Garza said it was difficult at first acquiring hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and so on, though county agencies stepped in and his department was finally able to access those supplies as well as quick-read thermometers in time for the July election.

Garza said he’s still waiting on some additional disinfectant supplies but that “we have 99 percent of everything that we wanted to have in place.”

“Right now we’re looking to give ourselves some reserves so that if anything shifts we can adjust and fill the need,” he said.

At each stage of preparations there were events that threatened to derail a smooth start to the general election — court cases resulting in names being removed from the ballot and then added back for instance — though the department was able to roll with it and voters weren’t affected, Garza said.

“Our goal is to make the election as familiar as possible, with the protections for COVID,” he said. “It should feel the same, the same process for checking in, getting your ballot, marking your ballot and voting.”

Grants of more than $2.5 million from the Center for Tech and Civic Life and the University of Southern California Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy have been “extremely helpful” in pulling off a successful general election, early voting for which started Oct. 13 and ends Oct. 30. Those grants are what enabled the department to set up curbside and walk-in voting “super centers” at the Brownsville Event Center, Harlingen Convention Center and Port Isabel Event and Cultural Center capable of handling large numbers of voters.

“The super centers allowed us to facilitate large-volume curbside voting, which we had never experienced in the past,” Garza said. “The additional personnel that we had to put in place in order to meet the traffic control and the curbside voting process wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

The department was also able to acquire new technology in the form of small cameras for reading IDs, eliminating the need for voters to hand their identification to poll workers, he said. Garza said he thinks curbside voting is “here to stay.”

“The public likes it,” he said. “It’s being utilized by 50 percent at some polling locations of the voters on a given day. Those super centers have been extremely popular with the voters. I have a feeling that that’s a component that we’re going to do everything we can do keep in place.”

The question is whether resources will be available for such innovations during future elections, Garza said.

“We’ve got a lot of support from the commissioners court and the local jurisdictions with respect to the resources they allocate based on what we’re planning, but these are additional expenses,” Garza said. “It ties up facilities that at the moment are available because of the COVID restrictions that are in place but in future elections may not be as readily available. With everything it’s a battle of resources versus desires. What we want to do isn’t always necessarily something we can afford.”

He said his department’s aim is to make sure it’s meeting the requirements of the state election code and providing an open, fair and transparent election process while also adding conveniences such as more early voting sites, staffing those sites and getting the information out to voters, who don’t appear to be phased by the pandemic judging by the record turnout so far.

“People are looking for election information and I think the turnout is a clear indication that, irrespective of what’s happening in the community with the respect to health and safety, people want to exercise their right to vote,” Garza said. “It’s not stopping them at all.”

The first day of early voting smashed previous records, with the above average turnout continuing as of Oct. 16, when about 1,000 more county residents than usual for that stage of early voting voted, he said. About 27,000 voters had cast their ballots as of that day — already half of the early vote from 2016. Garza said the first and last two days of early voting period are usually the busiest, while early voting was extended by a week this year due to the pandemic.

“ It’s a pretty significant turnout,” he said. “We think people might be taking advantage of it this year because of the extra time or just because of their concerns about having to go to a specific location on Election Day and what might happen, but it’s just fantastic. I certainly hope this represents the future of voting in Cameron County.”

Garza said he feels the department has achieved its goal of providing a safe and familiar election.

“Our mantra in the office is protect the voter, protect the vote,” he said. “As long as we’re doing everything we can do make sure the voters can access and are comfortable in the polling sites, then the voting process will take care of itself. At every step the only difference is the presence of face masks and plastic shields and hand sanitizer, which is not too much of an intrusion I think in the process.”

Noting relatively long wait times at a few voting sites, Garza advised voters to check the department website, cameronvotes.com, to see which locations are busiest in order to find less busy locations. All early voting sites have available ballots for every precinct.

“We just want to thank (voters) for their patience and understanding during this process, because of the turnout being so large and the curbside voting lines can be a little longer than we would like,” he said. “We do everything we can to at least keep the lines down to the 30-minute mark.”

Garza stressed that voters who have questions about their ballot shouldn’t hesitate to ask the polling site supervisor, who serves as presiding judge.

“If they have concerns about their ballot then please raise them before they put it in the ballot box,” he said. “We can correct any mistakes before the ballot gets cast. If somebody changes their mind and they’re not comfortable marking their ballot, we can adjust it so they can come back later and not having lost the opportunity.

“Once the ballot goes in the box the vote is cast and there’s nothing we can do, so if you have a question, ask before you cast it. And if you’re not satisfied with the answer that the judge is giving you, you can change your mind and surrender your ballot back. We’ll correct the voter roll to show that you have not voted yet, so that you can vote somewhere else or you can come back at a later time once you have the information you need.”

Garza reminded voters to study their sample ballot (also available on the department’s website) before heading to the polls and above all vote.

“If you have any concerns about the future holds, you need to vote,” he said. “We will be living in the America we choose on Election Day.”