EDINBURG — Voter registration in Hidalgo County is at an all-time high, but voter turnout continues to be low, elections administrator Yvonne Ramon said.
As of Thursday, more than 359,000 county residents had registered to vote. That’s about 10,000 more voters added to the rolls since the March primary, Ramon said.
“Unheard of,” the elections administrator said about the recent uptick in registrations. “I’ve been here 10 years and for the first five years we managed to stay between 290,000 and 310,000, because the state, after every federal election, purges (the rolls). But no, even after purges the number continues to climb and climb.
“In the 10 years that I’ve been here, we’ve never even been close to hitting 360,000.”
Still, registration means little if voters don’t cast a ballot come November.
“What we want is voter participation,” Ramon said. “Our voter turnout percentages continue to be low. So it’s not just to register, but we want people to be informed and to get out and vote.”
And in preparation for the upcoming election, Ramon’s staff this week began testing the county’s 696 voting machines for accuracy and logic. It’s a process that allows candidates, media and members of the public to observe the machines at work and double-check that they are working properly. Once a machine has been successfully tested, they are placed in locked containers and stored away until early voting begins.
“So the next person to open them will be the judge at the polling location,” Ramon said Thursday.
Her staff has recently been working closely with the county’s IT department to combat potential threats.
“It is our role to make sure their systems are always safeguarded and secure,” Hidalgo County IT Senior Manager Renan Ramirez said. “It’s always been the case, but in this era of enhanced cybersecurity we definitely had to step up our coordination, and we definitely are meeting quite a bit more often than we were in the past.”
The county is also working closely with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is providing resources, like training, education, support, and technical services, and has also applied to be part of the FBI’s Infragard program.
“Infragard is a program where we collaborate with the FBI,” Ramirez said. “So whenever there’s an incident here, our obligation is to report it to them, but then we are on the receiving end, getting notifications from them — watch out for this, watch out for that.”
And while the county has yet to be accepted into the FBI program, it’s already participating in MS-ISAC, a cybersecurity resource for local, state, territorial and tribal governments, with Homeland Security, Ramirez said. Certain county employees receive daily notifications about viruses targeting particular cities or systems, allowing staff to be more proactive.
“As a matter of fact, lately, we’ve been able to act very quickly because we’ll see virus activity that is tied to that report, and we’re able to target that way quicker,” Ramirez said. “And that’s the knowledge base and the leeway that we can bring in to assist elections, because they have two technology people in elections, but they’ve got so much equipment that they’re working on, that they may not be able to watch the security side as much as they should. And that’s where we help.”
“That database is actually getting downloaded into our system, so it’s making our systems a lot smarter,” Escamilla said. “…We don’t have to actually manually enter all of that information. So that’s how we’re enhancing a lot of our security.”
Cyber attacks are a constant threat.
“There’s always some,” she said. “Every second of the day, someone could be creating something new. So we’re just trying to stay as smart as possible.”