Hidalgo County officials spend $250K to safeguard elections

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County commissioners approved spending about a quarter-million dollars this month to make sure voting runs as smoothly and safely as possible during a pandemic, not only for the upcoming general election, but for future ones too.

The county’s biggest election expense this month involved mail-in ballots and the applications voters must submit to the county’s elections office in order to receive one.

Earlier this month, commissioners reaffirmed their commitment to send a mail-in ballot application to every eligible voter who is 65 and older in Hidalgo County to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but the discussion did not come without questions and concerns about redundancy.

Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramon said she and her mother had both already received multiple applications for mail-in ballots from various outside organizations. Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said he too had received them.

“I have already received two applications to ask for a mail-in ballot, and we’re talking about doing that on a county-wide basis,” he said. “It seems to me like this is a lot of redundancy or duplication. Is there any way for you (to know) who has already received one to save us money and not resend it?”

Ramon replied it was difficult to tell who had already received one because pretty much anyone can mail them out, including political parties, political action committees, candidates, nonprofits and other organizations.

“This is something the Secretary of State does not have a central location where they have to ask permission or they have to have the application approved like we do,” she said of the elections office. “If we do anything to any of the forms, we’ve got to go through the Secretary of State, but no one else has to. And so we have no (way) of knowing who out there (got one) — because not all of them come from local (entities). Some of them come from the state (parties), as we are seeing right now.”

It’s long been a problem for elections administrators, she said, even before the pandemic.

“Our voters get confused, especially our elderly,” she said, because they often receive multiple applications from various sources.

“We had some candidates during the primary that sent incorrect applications, and so those have to be rejected because they are not even correctly done, but there is no law that requires them to get these (applications) approved before mailing them out,” Ramon said. “There’s no law that requires them to go through us, because at least we would have an idea, but they don’t go through us.”

So instead, the county will spend approximately $105,000 in federal virus relief funds to make sure no one over 65 is disenfranchised. The cost will cover the 70,000 applications the county will send voters and their return envelopes, complete with stamps. It also covers the cost of sending and receiving additional mail kits, which include the actual ballot.

“I’m comfortable making the voting process as easy as possible,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Eddie Cantu said before making a motion to approve the measure.

Commissioners also approved to spend nearly $58,000 in Help America Vote Again (HAVA) federal virus relief money — federal funds sent directly to the elections office — to purchase Hart Verity Controllers that will facilitate curbside voting.

“The controller actually controls the set of machines inside, and usually, you can share a controller inside and out. But because we’re gonna have an increase of machines and be prepared in case there is an increase in curbside voting, then we’re going to have a controller just for curbside,” Ramon explained Monday. “That way the workers don’t have to be coming in and out and in and out, and instead, they will have their own set of machines just for curbside voting.”

That system is usually available at the larger and more frequented polling locations across Hidalgo County, “but we’re just going to be prepared for any and all locations,” Ramon said.

And lastly, commissioners also approved spending $90,000 to turn the election’s office training sessions into online modules so more poll workers can be qualified to work elections in the future.

“So if any person is not able to come in person to train, then we’ll have the modules online and they can go in and do self training,” Ramon said. “This will be such an added help because, you know, people are busy. And right now, if you don’t have that training, then you can’t work, and so we don’t want to keep anyone away because of that. So we’re going to start creating those modules.”

The county is still trying to recruit more workers for the upcoming election, Ramon said, noting this year the county will be using the Bert Ogden Arena as a polling location on Election Day.

“We can only have more machines if we have more workers,” she said. “That’s the only way.”

Anyone interested in working can call (956) 318-2570 or visit the county’s election website at https://www.hidalgocounty.us/105/Elections-Department .

“One way or another, make sure we know so that you can get in line with us,” Ramon said.