Ballot board member infected with COVID-19, prompting tests

A member on the Hidalgo County Signature Verification Committee who tested positive for COVID-19 prompted the testing of the entire committee, according to county spokesman Carlos Sanchez.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez issued the following statement Wednesday morning regarding the 2020 election.

“The county recently learned that a member of the Hidalgo County balloting committee has tested positive for COVID-19,” Cortez said in the statement. “The balloting committee is a group made up of Democratic and Republican appointees who observe the electoral process for compliance with state election law. While they do have certain functions ahead of Election Day, the bulk of their work occurs beginning on Election Day and beyond.”

Juana Martinez, one of the members serving on the committee, said she was “shocked” by the news, which was delivered to members telephonically Tuesday evening.

She and the rest of the committee were asked to get tested Wednesday morning.

Testing was not required prior to serving on the board, according to Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez.

“My husband didn’t want me to go to work for this reason, but I wanted to do my civic duty,” said Martinez, a retiree who has diabetes. 

So far, they’ve only met four times in person, including on Tuesday. 

Martinez said precautions like the use of masks, gloves, sanitizer and social distancing were encouraged while the committee members worked in close proximity at a facility, which she described as spacious.

As a safeguard to ensure the integrity of the process, members work together in pairs.

Committee members try to observe the recommended 6 feet of social distancing, but, “It’s kind of hard,” Martinez said. “We have to interact with each other. So, we may start off with the 6 feet, but while we’re working we end up being together.”

Personal responsibility continues to be a message stressed for those who get tested, Melendez said. 

Martinez was disappointed the advice wasn’t followed.

“We’ve been told that when you test you stay home until you get your results,” she said. “So, I think it’s just a matter of being responsible adults and respecting other citizens.”

Though membership into the committee breaks up into political affiliation, Martinez said the virus doesn’t discriminate. 

“It could’ve been one of us or one of them,” Martinez added. “We’re humans first, regardless of whether we are Republicans or Democrats, it’s something that all of us are concerned about.”

Whether she’ll return to help remains undecided. 

“It all depends on the testing tomorrow, and how it goes. If a lot of people turn out positive, it’s something to think about,” she said.

The Signature Verification Committee finalized their duties by Tuesday, according to Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramon. 

The committee members are pulled from a list of ballot board members which was approved in September by the county’s election board. 

Ramon said the election board is meeting Friday to select members from the same list to serve on a different group working with ballots, the Early Voting Ballot Board, or EVBB. The EVBB is scheduled to meet for the first time on Monday, Oct. 26.

If there are not enough healthy members left after Wednesday’s testing, the election board will have to work with party chairs to draft a new list of members.

“The board may consider selecting alternate members as needed,” Ramon said.

Populating the list may be a challenge, considering statements made over the weekend by a ballot board member appointed by the Hidalgo County Democratic Party who resigned, Sylvia Handy. She stated she served on the ballot board after an underwhelming response to volunteer for the job.