Starr County outlaws electioneering on county property

RIO GRANDE CITY — Polling locations in Starr County will likely seem quieter and less crowded than usual this year after the county prohibited electioneering on county property.

The county commissioners approved the new regulation Monday which would outlaw electioneering during voting periods “in or on property owned or under the care, custody and control” of the county.

That means campaign workers, or electioneers, will not be allowed to set up camp on the county courthouse parking lot, among other areas.

The large tents under which campaign workers are stationed, often with barbecues pits or refreshments, have become a staple at polling locations. They’re perfectly legal under Texas law so long as they don’t come within 100 feet from the door of a polling location.

But even from 100 feet away from the doors, District Attorney Omar Escobar argued they were disruptive to the normal course of business.

“The idea, we would assume, is that these locations are often also working government locations,” Escobar said. “For example, the courthouse; the judicial process continues, we have a lot of things that are going on in the courthouse.”

The issue, Escobar said, was especially evident at the polling location at La Rosita, which is located next to a county commissioner’s office, a justice of the peace’s office and fire station.

“So you have all these government offices and what people do is they go and set up all tents all over the place on government property and otherwise obstructing the normal ebb and flow of traffic,” he said. “There’s cars coming in and going out and it becomes very disorderly when you have tents and barbecue pits.”

County Commissioner Eloy Garza was the only one opposed to the measure, believing the regulation would somehow discourage people from voting.

But Escobar pushed back on that idea, saying the regulation would benefit voters.

“You won’t have people jumping on them, yelling at them and screaming at them from a few feet away,” Escobar said. “I think this is in favor of voters not against it.”

County Judge Eloy Vera agreed, stating he believed people were often turned off from going to vote because they feel harassed by electioneers.

“I think if we just leave it open, all of it, and let whoever wants to go vote, vote their will, however they want,” Vera said, “I think we’ll be making a giant step forward in Starr County as far as elections are concerned.”

However, before the commissioners voted on the issue, local attorney Hilda Gonzalez-Garza pointed out that Texas Election Code Ch. 61 “the entity that owns or controls a public building being used as a polling place may not, at any time during the voting period, prohibit electioneering on the building’s premises” outside of the 100-foot area.

The law does state, though, that the entity “may enact reasonable regulations concerning the time, place and manner of electioneering.”

Escobar argued that the Texas Secretary of State’s interpretation of “reasonable regulations” allows the county the authority to prohibit electioneering on its property.

“The law is ambiguous,” he said, explaining that they relied on the secretary of state’s opinion or interpretation, which states a reasonable regulation may include prohibiting electioneering on sidewalks or driveways. “We have read that to believe, based on the secretary of state’s interpretation of these election laws, their plain language of it is indicating that it can be done.”