More people are opting to cast their ballots by mail in the Rio Grande Valley this presidential election compared to the last one. An increase in these types of ballots received could mean a delay in the tabulation of total votes on Election Day.
“That is certainly the expectation this year,” Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramon said. “Naturally, if you’ve got more ballots to count, if you’ve got more ballots to wait for and count, then it would be the natural progression that it will take a little longer.”
As of Tuesday, the Cameron County Election Administration office had sent about 11,200 mail-in ballots, according to election administrator Remi Garza. That’s compared to about 3,373 ballots submitted in the 2016 general election.
In Hidalgo County, 18,325 ballots were sent by mail to voters in the county as opposed to the 7,614 from the last presidential election.
These numbers represent about 5% of all registered voters in each county who are preferring not to go to the polls in-person this year.
Only about 3% of registered voters in Willacy and Starr counties asked for a mail-in ballot.
“I think it’s primarily people’s concern for COVID-19 possible infections at the polling site,” Garza said. Preventative measures are in place, but pandemic concerns linger in the air.
On the same day people were allowed to go to the polls, five virus deaths and 67 infections were reported in Cameron County.
In Hidalgo County, 15 more died and 119 new cases were confirmed Tuesday.
A state-granted option also created a natural pathway allowing some to side-step polling sites. Ramon says it accounts for an organic increase in mail-in ballots.
The option to request an annual application for ballot-by-mail allows voters to make one request for these ballots for every election that year, as opposed to requesting one for every election. Only people who are 65 and older or disabled are allowed to participate.
“That has created automatic 5,000-plus applications that are already on the books without having to request a ballot,” Ramon said of Hidalgo County.
The process governing how these votes get counted is not simple.
“It’s very exact and systemic,” Ramon said.
When a voter requests an application, they must be verified and validated to ensure eligibility. A ballot kit is then created for the voter which includes a ballot inside a secrecy envelope with no marks identifying the voter. After the voter makes their marks, the ballot will be inserted into the white envelope which will then be placed inside a gold envelope requiring a signature from the voter.
The ballots will then be inspected by the Signature Verification Committee. This is a group of people selected by the Republican and Democratic parties. Ramon said they requested 20 people in total this year.
The committee is tasked with comparing the signatures on the ballot-by-mail applications and the returned ballots. If they match, the ballots are placed in locked boxes whose keys are held by the election administrator and the sheriff. Those are opened until the polls are closed on Election Day.
METHODS TO SPEED UP COUNTING
The ballots are not counted by hand, but they do require people to help open the envelopes and prepare the ballots to be processed by electronic counters.
Ten more people were hired on a temporary basis by the Hidalgo County Elections Administration to help with the additional ballots.
In Cameron County, Garza said he’s waiting to hear back by Oct. 21 about the purchase of an additional high-speed electronic counter. “They’re scouring the country to find one for us,” he said.
Three automatic envelope openers will also be used in Cameron County.
Even with the additional help and technology, the law allows certain ballots to be counted up to six days after Election Day.
“The law says that we are to count every single mail ballot that is received on Election Day,” Ramon said, stressing that they must count the postmarked ballots at the post office the next day, those that come from overseas up to five days after Election Day, the military ballots sent up to six days after Election Day, and provisional ballots which are also counted up at that time.
If voters miss the opportunity to mail their ballots before early voting, the voter can hand-deliver their mail-in ballots at their respective elections administration office on Election Day. It must be the voter who casts the ballot who hand-delivers it to the office.
The election administrators said they did not keep track of the total number of ballots requested in 2016, only of the number returned.
It’s unknown how many of the voters who requested ballots by mail this year will return them. However, on the first day of early voting, Hidalgo County already surpassed the number of mail-in ballots received this year compared to the last election by more than 1,000.
Applications for ballots by mail are still pouring in. The deadline to request one is Oct. 23.
“My advice is for people to be patient, because we want this to be done correctly,” Ramon said.
If the public has specific questions about mail-in ballots in Hidalgo County, they can call (956) 587-6287. In Cameron County, voters can call the elections hotline at (956) 504-1363.