Starr County limits electioneering, property use policies to courthouse

After many modifications and more than two years of legal wrangling, the Starr County Commissioners Court on Monday dissolved their electioneering and property use policies so that they now only apply to the county courthouse.

The policies were adopted by the county in early 2018 with the hope of controlling where people could electioneer.

The practice of electioneering often manifests as campaign supporters setting up near polling locations with tents, campaign signs, and candidate literature to give to voters as they walk into the polls. Barbecue pits would also, sometimes, be a part of the setup.

State law prohibits electioneering within 100 feet of an entrance to a polling place but Starr County officials, at the time, argued that wasn’t enough.

When election time came around in Starr County, campaigns would set up those camps in the parking lot of the county courthouse, outside of the 100-foot buffer. However, they would take up a large portion of the parking spaces available.

In passing the electioneering ordinance in January 2018, the county prohibited electioneering on the parking lot by banning the practice on all county property.

Later that month, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and Texas Civil Rights Project filed a lawsuit and temporary restraining order against the county to prevent them from implementing the electioneering policy.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Starr County residents — Hilda Gonzalez Garza, a local attorney and Democratic Party precinct chair, and Rosbell Barrera, the county’s Republican Party chair.

The county then passed a property use policy in February 2018 to override the electioneering policy. That policy allowed for the use of county property, with a permit from the county judge, as long as that property is not designated a parking area.

The lawsuit against the county was amended to include that policy as well.

In October, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane partially struck down the policies, determining that some sections violated the First and 14th Amendments because of their restrictions on speech and for their alleged lack of equal protections.

While MALDEF touted the ruling as a win for freedom of expression, District Attorney Omar Escobar, who helped draft the policies, argued the main goal of the policies remained intact which was to prohibit electioneering in the parking lots.

By the action taken by the commissioners on Monday, each commissioner will be responsible for leasing buildings in their precinct instead of having to go through Starr County Judge Eloy Vera.

“That was time consuming,” Vera said of the necessity of each permit request having to go through him. “We decided to go back to the way we had it before where each commissioner pretty much controls their own building.”

Regarding electioneering, Vera said that really the only area of concern was the county courthouse which is why the policy will still apply for that polling location.

“The courthouse has a lot of business throughout the weekdays so we don’t want that to be interfered, with the elections,” Vera said. “So that will remain the same — we cannot allow anyone inside the parking lots or anywhere close to the courthouse.”