Hidalgo County to examine records of about 2,000 voters

Voters wait in line Nov. 6, 2018, at the Lark Community Center polling station in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County elections officials are working diligently to identify voters who may need to verify their citizenship following an advisory from the Texas Secretary of State’s Office last week.

The past few days have been a whirlwind for election administrators across the state who received notice last week that some of the registered voters in their respective counties might not be U.S. citizens, and those in the Rio Grande Valley are no different.

Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramon said her office received the notice, along with a list of 3,311 potential non-citizens, at about 4:57 p.m. Friday. Since then, her staff have been combing through the list to figure out exactly who they should send a letter of examination to in order to verify their citizenship.

“We had been told they were working on this, but we certainly weren’t expecting this to come out at the same time that everyone else was informed — not giving us any time to do our part, which is to research our list and identify what exactly is happening,” she said about the abrupt advisory that was sent to elections officials and the media alike, with little to no warning.

Since the initial list was sent, however, changes have been made.

“Right off the bat, they did find about 96 voters that they could see were duplicates,” Ramon said about her staff. “But then (we found) over 1,266 voters with no voting history.”

The county was left with just under 2,000 voters to examine more closely before sending out the letters.

“These voters have to be checked one at a time. We literally have to open up their file, check their voting history, check their applications,” Ramon said.

On Monday and Tuesday, she had five employees verifying the list, but with May elections around the corner, she could only afford to have one employee review records Wednesday morning.

“While we were (in a meeting), one of my best data processors looked at 66 records. That’s all. A whole morning — 66 records,” she said Wednesday afternoon. “These people are experts and fast, and that’s how long it takes to be able to really do it right, because we don’t want to do anything that would hurt our community, our voters.”

A blank voter registration card rests on a table at the Hidalgo County Elections Office in Edinburg on Wednesday afternoon in Edinburg as officials there work to verify the eligibility of more than 3,000 voters flagged as potential non-citizens by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office. (Naxiely Lopez-Puente | nlopez@themonitor.com)

That’s also the reason that Hidalgo County, like Cameron County, is holding off on sending the notices to voters.

“Some counties did send out all of the letters. We don’t want to do that,” Ramon said. “The state has left it to our discretion, and we’re going to tread cautiously and with a plan. We don’t want our community to be embarrassed or frightened at this step.”

In Hidalgo County, the elections office is working with an official from the U.S. District Court that specializes in naturalization services.

“She has given us a number of over 5,000 people that have become U.S. citizens within the last five years,” Ramon said. “So she feels that some of these voters are in transition.

“They did become U.S. citizens, but they haven’t finished the whole process of letting (Texas Department of Public Safety) know.”

In Cameron County, elections officials are using technology that has already allowed them to verify citizenship for about 300 voters, and they are also working with immigration advocacy groups to whittle down the list, which went from about 1,600 to 30 to 1,600 again. Officials there have expressed frustration at the ever-changing figures the state is sending.

Ramon, who was initially shocked at the news, now sees it as an opportunity to help clean the voter rolls.

“It’s not a crisis. It’s just another step in helping us clean up the data,” she said. “If you are a voter that is supposed to vote, and you go to our polls and you’re flagged as being on this list, we’re going to resolve it. If you are a person who should not be a voter, we’re going to resolve it.”

And while there’s no timetable on when the county will send out the letters of examination, she encouraged anyone who might receive one to not shy away.

“If they do receive a letter, respond,” she said. “Come into the office. Show your documents because you will be cancelled if you receive this letter of examination and you don’t respond.”