Anything can happen election night; RGV officials say they’re ready

The Harlingen County Annex Building drew large lines of voters choosing to cast their votes in person on Tuesday.

More people voting in-person and through the mail is already expected to cause delays when counting votes on Tuesday. This year, the ripples of the pandemic could reach Rio Grande Valley election officials who are now planning more failsafes.

“Power outages at polling locations, things like workers not showing up, machines that are not functioning correctly,” — these are the worst-case scenarios Cameron County Elections Administrator Remi Garza is planning for on Election Day.

About a quarter of all votes that come in during a general election in Hidalgo County will be cast on Election Day — that’s according to the last four general elections. It’s higher in Cameron County where 36% of the total votes will come on the last possible day to cast a ballot.

Administrators in Garza’s position need to only work one presidential general election to learn that it’s a pattern that repeats every year.

“We have that large group of people who get in line at 10 till 7. That will cause a delay,” Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramon said.

Counties across the state are preparing for the longer process of counting more mail-in ballots than they’ve had in previous elections.

Recalling 2016’s general election, Ramon said, “On Election Day we had 35,770 votes, but we only had 7,600 mail ballots.”

As of Friday, they already had over 16,200 returned mail-in ballots of the 22,771 they sent out. “So, it’s more than double,” Ramon said, comparing 2016 with 2020.

The paper ballots will require more hands to process. Ramon hired 10 more temporary workers.

In Cameron County, there’s usually six people who work on the ballot board. This year, there will be 20 temporary employees who will also be required to undergo COVID-19 testing prior to working, since they will need to work in close proximity for as long as it takes to count every ballot received up to that day.

Last week during Rio Grande City CISD’s election, a power outage is believed to have played a part in a vote cast twice. It’s a common problem both Ramon and Garza feel confident they’re prepared to handle.

Ramon said her department has five generators, and Hidalgo County has more they could take at a moment’s notice. It’s a precautionary resource for outages that can be caused by natural disasters like floods or hurricanes.

In Cameron County, Garza said they have 10 generators. Experiencing outages in the past, Garza said their machines have battery backups so they can continue to operate throughout the day. The generators were purchased through a grant that allowed them to buy emergency equipment like portable air conditioners and shelters they could inflate and create a space if they needed to relocate their polling locations.

While it may be difficult to predict cyberattacks, training is required for those working in election departments on an annual basis, Garza said.

“They send phishing emails to test us,” Ramon said. “That’s the worst and easiest way that they can hack you — if you open a suspicious email.”

Machines play a critical part in the process. High-speed counters are used to process early voting and mail-in ballots in Cameron County. Precinct counters are used at each polling site and totals are collected on a USB drive. There is also a paper readout that serves as a backup to cross-reference the numbers.

Ballots cast in-person or via curbside are electronically processed in Hidalgo County. There, voters must go through a three-step process to successfully vote.

The voter must check-in electronically, sign a log, and vote on the machine. Those three numbers must balance each time.

“So, if you have 100 people who check in, you have 100 people who signed in, you have 100 votes on the machine,” Ramon said.

Mistakes can happen. Sometimes, it’s human error.

“Because there are voters, who for example, walk away and don’t cast their vote. And, we are not allowed by law to hit ‘vote’ for them,” Ramon said.

Garza wanted to have one more high-speed counter, but it won’t be available until after November, he said.

That will leave them with three high-speed counters to process the ballots.

Should anything go wrong with the machines in either county, the election admins in Cameron and Hidalgo counties say they have direct lines to the companies who manage them.

Electronic poll books in Cameron County have a texting feature that allows for communication with the elections departments. It helps balance the numbers throughout the day.

Hand-held radios and cellphones are used in both counties to allow the election workers to communicate with administrators should any problems occur throughout the day.

All 254 Texas counties will be reporting their results to the state through the Texas Secretary of State’s online portal. Though, it’s not always user-friendly, Garza said.

“And some of the challenges that we find are that the rows aren’t matching and so we have to adjust our data so that we can easily transpose it through physically typing in of numbers,” Garza said.

The biggest challenge on Election Day is still procrastination.

This year, Texas has already claimed the top spot for the total number of ballots cast in the U.S. If the trend continues, there will be more people ready to cast their ballots.

Ramon and Garza, administrators for election departments of the two largest counties in the Valley, urged voters to show up early on Election Day.

“Be an informed voter so that you get there, you’re quick and efficient and you’re in and out,” Ramon said.

vgonzalez@themonitor.com