Woman behind Hidalgo County’s elections has prepared her entire life

EDINBURG — Yvonne Ramón and her staff at the Hidalgo County Elections Department are planning on having a busy day Tuesday.

Yvonne Ramon, Hidalgo county elections administrator, poses at the Hidalgo Hidalgo County elections offices on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

But on the eve of what’s considered one of the most contentious elections in living memory, the results of which the president himself has indicated he may challenge in threats to take the presidential race to court, Monday was a slow day at the Hidalgo County Elections Department — at least by the standards of the people who work there.

The people who work there, clearly, have forgotten what an actual slow day looks like. They haven’t had one in a while, so that’s understandable.

A steady stream of visitors crossed their threshold Monday, asking a variety of usually simple questions about voting that often had precise, sometimes complicated answers.

“I’m here to vote,” one said boldly. She was out of luck: early voting was over, she’d have to come back the next day.

One guest asked if they were registered to vote. Another wanted to know the rules for curbside voting.

It seemed like every time the lobby cleared out the phone rang. Nancy Carr, who was manning the front desk, would answer it.

She looked up one caller’s name to see if they were registered. It looked like they weren’t.

Carr delicately explained to the caller that they wouldn’t be allowed to vote this year, gently informing them that the registration deadline was weeks ago and that the elections department even extended their hours to give voters more time to register near the deadline.

“You have people that take it well and there’s people that don’t,” she said.

The people that take it well politely hang up. The ones that don’t often launch into a line of questioning that requires Carr to explain registration deadlines and voter requirements and a host of other complex rules and regulations that the Hidalgo County Elections Department is responsible for adhering to for every election.

Sorting through that forest of red tape is a challenge in any election. This year, the elections staff is doing it while working overtime to process a record number of ballots, enduring increased scrutiny caused by a particularly bitter general election and enforcing safety measures to mitigate a raging pandemic.

“With so many stones being thrown at us and so much misinformation out there, you really have to be a rock in your beliefs to do what we do, because it’s such a challenging job every day,” Ramón said Monday.

Ramón, the elections administrator for Hidalgo County, had just returned from meeting with the county’s polling location judges where she reiterated COVID-19 precautions and asked for their feedback on preparations.

Those pandemic protocols are etched in Ramón’s mind now, along with hundreds of other deadlines, guidelines and district lines she’s memorized over her last 12 years as elections administrator.

It’s necessary to be especially well-versed in the Texas Election Code, but also acquainted with the Administrative Code and the Government Code, as well as the U.S. Constitution. Then there are municipal laws, school laws, even irrigation district laws

Knowing those regulations is what makes Ramón and her staff pull off a successful election a couple times a year, and while she doesn’t let the work consume her, she’s clearly devoted to it. She has an uncanny ability to rattle off dates for when ballots will be in and timelines when they’ll be counted.

Ramón can speak about how the next week will look — with its different rules for pending provisional ballots and overseas ballots and postmarked mail-in ballots — with a precision and speed that makes you want to look over your shoulder to see if she’s reading it off a calendar on the wall behind you.

THE WOMAN FOR THE JOB

The daughter of a single McAllen woman with three children, Ramón remembers her mother keeping the books for three businesses while she was growing up. She inherited that knack for numbers, and went to work at McAllen State Bank in her 20s before getting a job in education at McAllen ISD.

Ramón says she applied for the position as elections administrator mostly on the credentials of her personal integrity and character, and was surprised when she got a call asking for some paperwork for a background investigation just before her daughter’s wedding in Mexico.

“So on the day of her wedding I’m literally faxing paperwork to the county from Cancun,” she chuckles.

After that, the county winnowed the pool of applicants down to four; Ramón came out on top.

“I am a woman of great faith, and I truly believe it’s through the grace of God,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about elections, I knew very little about the county, never been involved in politics, but truly a calling came to me to apply for this position.”

Ramón has remedied her lack of knowledge since then. She’s run scores of elections, served as a panelist for the Texas Tribune and weathered all kinds of crises.

“I know I should be writing a book,” she laughs.

CHALLENGES APLENTY

Still, 2020 is proving to be particularly challenging, although Ramón says the biggest challenge is still relying on governmental entities to get their own facts straight.

“That to me is a challenge,” she said. “So we’ve got to be strong in our conviction and believe in what we’re doing.”

Another particularly challenging aspect of this year’s election has been last-minute changes the department has had to cope with, things like adding new candidates to the race days before the deadline to finish the ballot.

Those last minute changes are underscored by another factor. Hidalgo County is on track to have more votes cast than ever before and at a time when the pool of people processing those votes is, for the most part, remaining stagnant.

Many of Ramón’s poll workers were in their 60s when she started. Now they’re in their 80s and are calling it quits.

“We’re needing some new retirees to step forward,” she said. “Who can be off for 18 days? Who can be gone from a job that long? Not many people.”

Ramón’s operations department is managing with four employees, but she says it should have 14. She hired 10 additional temporary workers, which is the norm, but Ramón says she needs 30.

Even if new workers materialized, Ramón would have nowhere to put them on account of the pandemic and social distancing requirements. She said she didn’t expect such a large turnout, and will likely reassess the department’s strategy for next time.

“We don’t have enough right now, we really, really don’t,” she said. “We went from an average of 7,000 to 12,000 ballots to 22,000 that have been mailed out, so it’s not enough.”

The elections staff she does have are making it work. She says some work from dawn to midnight, often on the weekends as well.

“I’m just in awe of the people that I’ve seen today, where they’re continuing to do their duty. It’s a lot,” she said.

Despite all the extra hours and extra work, Ramón says that turnout is a good thing.

“People are involved, people know about this election, and that’s a great thing. I just hope that this isn’t a one-time thing, that it’s a momentum that’s started and will continue,” she said. “More than vote, we have to be informed. That’s what I ask all my voters.”

Ramón is hopeful the vote will be processed by Nov. 10. After that, she and her staff will start working on the next election.

“We used to have an off year, where we could clean things up and shred,” she said. “We haven’t had one of those in a while.”

Ramón, 66, says she might finally get an off year in the near future. She’s got three granddaughters, a grandson and another grandchild on the way, and 2020 might be the last big general election she steers the department through.

Ramón says she’ll likely retire within five years.

“It’s time,” she said. “You know, I’m waiting for that signal.”