The Hidalgo County Democratic Party appointment of a convicted felon to serve on a committee handling mail-in ballots, though legal, has drawn concerns from members of both parties in the ongoing, contentious election.
“I feel it’s an insult to the members of Hidalgo County,” Adrienne Peña-Garza, who sits as the chair of the opposing Republican party, said.
Sylvia Handy is serving on the Hidalgo County Signature Verification Board, a committee tasked with verifying and processing mail-in ballots. This year, the county sent out over 18,300 ballots by mail.
From 1997 until 2009, Handy served as an Hidalgo County commissioner until she was convicted on federal charges.
Handy entered into a plea deal March 8, 2010, affirming she was guilty of employing and claiming a tax credit for a housekeeper who did not have legal status to reside in the U.S. and hiring a different woman to work for Hidalgo County Precinct 1 under an unlawfully assumed citizenship identity for six years.
While serving 30 months in a federal prison, Handy was indicted by a Hidalgo County grand jury on eight charges of theft of property in 2011. The charges stemmed from the hiring and rehiring of staff that were not believed to have performed work for the county.
Handy was appointed by the Democratic party and approved by the County Election Board on Aug. 7, according to Hilda Salinas, Hidalgo County elections analyst. The board is composed of the sheriff, county clerk, Democratic and Republican party chairs, and the county judge.
“It puts us in a difficult situation because those are the rules,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said referring to state law that allows Handy’s appointment.
“In order to serve on the committee, a person must be a qualified voter of the entity,” states the Early Voting Ballot Board & Signature Verification Committee handbook for 2020.
Under the state’s election code, a “qualified voter” is someone who, if convicted, has “fully discharged the person’s sentence, including any term of incarceration, parole, or supervision, or completed a period of probation ordered by any court.”
Though Handy meets legal requirements to serve, the optics of selecting someone convicted for abusing a position of trust is a concern for Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa.
“Certainly, [that’s] something that should be considered by the chair when making the determination both because of the perception and because of the concerns other people might have regarding a person with that prior conviction,” Hinojosa said.
Three calls, an email and a text message were sent to request comment from the chair of the Hidalgo County Democratic party, Norma Ramirez. Additional calls were placed to the headquarters, as well as a late visit. Both yielded no results.
Ramirez responded to a call, said she would return the call but did not.
At 8:13 p.m. Patrick Eronini, political director of the Hidalgo County Democratic party, placed a call to the reporter working on the story but refused to identify himself.
“I don’t think you should be part of (the) bullying, and the lynching, and the assassination of people’s characters. So, when individuals and committee members volunteer to serve on these very important boards, they are worthy of praise,” Eronini said.
Members serving on the board are paid by the county, according to Salinas. Yvonne Ramon, the election administrator, said she requested 20 people from each party. On Sept. 3, 39 were announced as confirmed.
Some insight into the selection process by the Hidalgo County Democratic party was shared by another member on the board, Mary Alice Palacios.
“The Democratic party sends out a memo or an email asking people if they want to be on the ballot committee. You send your name in. Once you send your name to them, they send this list to the commissioners court. They approve the list, and then that’s how we’re selected,” she said.
Palacios was convicted and sentenced for official oppression in 2011 when she served as Precinct 4, Place 1 Justice of the Peace in Hidalgo County. She was acquitted on appeal.
This is the first year Palacios serves on the board to verify signatures on mail-in ballot applications and returned ballots and later to process the mail-in ballots for counting on Election Day. The process has safeguards in place.
“They pair you up. So, you’re never working with the same party. You’re always with a Republican or with a Democrat,” Palacios said.
The head of the Democratic party in Texas said the bipartisan pairing helps ensure integrity in the process and avoid vote tampering.
“There’s no way that she (Handy) can be in any position of doing anything like that, regardless of what her intentions would be,” Hinojosa said.
Handy said she wants any fears of her appointment “to be put to rest.”
Her voting rights were restored, and she became a registered voter as of June 8, 2019, according to state records. Her mail-in ballot was already received by the county Oct. 15, and she said that as part of her conviction, she’s paid nearly $200,000 in restitution.
Handy, who continues to claim innocence, said her involvement with the board was a result of a search by the party which resulted in insufficient volunteers.
“I guess there’s a lot of people right now who can’t work full-time or they don’t have the time, or they just don’t do it. They were short,” Handy said after mentioning she’s retired and inclined to participate in the democratic process.
Keeping qualified voters with prior convictions from participating would require a change in the law. Otherwise, a challenge or denial from the county election board could be read as censorship, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said.
“If we don’t want prior people who had a conviction or whatever, then put it in the law,” Cortez said.
Peña-Garza said they are writing a letter to the Texas Secretary of State’s office, but they also urge vigilance among voters.
“Out of every single person in Hidalgo County, I think that we do need to pay a little bit more attention to who is being selected,” Peña-Garza said.