Former candidates react to illegal voting arrests

EDINBURG — Former city council candidates on last year’s November ballot expressed disappointment with the recent arrests surrounding alleged illegal voting in the municipal election and called for new oversight and accountability measures.

Over the past decade, Hidalgo County has seen its share of troubles within the electoral process — ranging from accusations of faulty voting machines, to the sale of mail-in ballots by a postal worker to politiqueras trading votes for cocaine — and the four arrests earlier this week by the Texas Rangers are yet another black eye for a community that remains skeptical of the process.

“This is why it’s so important that we have a voter ID,” said Fern McClaugherty, a member of a local watchog group who ran unsuccessfully against Edinburg council member Jorge Salinas in November. “Mexico has one that has a picture and a thumb print.”

McClaugherty, who was “floored” by the recent developments, has testified twice before the Texas Legislature on a number of issues surrounding elections, including what she believes is an abuse of the mail-in ballot system and the use of politiqueras.

On her most recent occasion, McClaugherty asked legislators to “put some teeth” on the voter fraud charges, and on Friday, she renewed that call.

“We need to clean up our elections,” she said. “It needs to be a felony. There needs to be jail time and maybe we can stop it.”

Illegal voting in Texas is considered a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and carries a fine of up to $10,000. In March, a judge sentenced a Texas woman to five years of jail time after she voted while under probation for a felony. Felons are prohibited from casting a ballot in the state until they complete the terms of their parole or probation.

“We’re disappointed in the people, in the voters and in anyone that is willing to cheat,” McClaugherty said.

Richard Gonzales, who also ran against Salinas, also expressed concern.

“It’s unfortunate for all the candidates involved. I know all the hard work and the expenses that we made,” he said. “I really hope that this situation sets an example for elections everywhere, and that people understand that this is something that is taken very seriously.”

Roland Villarreal, who ran against Edinburg councilman Gilbert Enriquez, said he has “completely moved on” since the election, but has found it hard to avoid the news.

“I don’t even know what to think to be honest,” he said about the arrests. “It’s very shocking; very surprising.”

Villarreal said he has “the utmost respect for everyone on the board” and is happy to be out of the conversation, for the most part.

“Anything that is going on on social media, I don’t read any of that, and my name has stayed out of it,” he said. “So in many ways, in light of this, I feel I came out on top to be honest with you.”

Former Mayor Richard Garcia is also trying to stay away from the public eye.

“I have tried to steer clear of this fray, and in light of all of these ongoing developments, I believe it would be wholly inappropriate for me to make comments at this time,” he said Friday.

Gina Alamia, who also ran for the mayoral seat, has perhaps been one of the most vocal critics of the electoral process in November. She called for the creation of an ethics committee and said she ran to stop corruption.

“I am a firm believer in that the ‘truth will out always.’ Justice needs to be served — that’s for sure,” she said. “It’s unfortunate to see this happening to the great city of Edinburg and its people.”

nlopez@themonitor.com