Voting during COVID-19 outbreak; Elections Office training volunteers via online

So far 2020 has proven itself a year filled with unprecedented challenges. The possibility to elect new leaders or to re-elect those who have shown commitment to our communities during crisis is on the horizon. Are you ready to cast your vote in the November general election?

In Cameron County, residents have less than a month left to register. The final registration date is on Oct. 5. Those who haven’t done so already, or who have since moved or had a name change, are encouraged to register and update voter information.

Residents who still need to do so are encouraged to call the Cameron County Department of Elections and Voter Registration at (956) 544-0809.

Voters can also register by visiting www.cameronvotes.org and following the link to “Register To Vote,” which leads users to an online registration form.

County election officials are hard at work preparing for an increase in vote by mail ballots cast this election, as well as a higher than usual use of curbside voting during both early voting and on election day.

Come Tuesday, Nov. 3, staff will have already been working to count ballots cast during early voting for three to four days in an effort to handle the expected increase.

According to Elections Administrator Remi Garza, the department is expecting between 10,000 and 15,000 ballots sent via mail. Turnout during the July 14 primary runoff elections was better than in recent years, suggesting there may be even more votes cast in November.

“I think it could be even higher,” Garza said. “Our highest mail-in ballot election was in 2018, where we had close to 5,000 people utilize it. There are 14 other local jurisdictions holding local elections that will be processing their ballots as well. Our Ballot By Mail Board could see ourselves processing between 25,000 and 30,000 ballots.”

The department will be bringing in more staff to speed up the count, in addition to purchasing additional equipment including a high-speed letter opener so that workers on the board won’t have to open each letter by hand, Garza said.

The county relies on volunteer deputy registrars to help get the word out about the importance of registering to vote and provide information on how to do so. Due to COVID-19, in-person training opportunities have been reduced, forcing the department to find new ways to engage.

“We can’t be open 24 hours a day and so access to our office is limited, unlike a volunteer deputy registrar who can be available whenever people are seeking to register,” explained Garza.

Volunteers are being trained through Webex every Thursday between now and Oct.1. Anyone interested should contact the Elections Department. In-person office training will be held on the last Thursday of both August and September through use of the county’s other meeting spaces to allow for social distancing.

“We’re launching new ways to provide that training and get people processed and compliant with the statute so that they can go out into the community either virtually, or through family connections, or through organizational connections to help people register to vote,” said the administrator.

Staff is gearing up to mail registration information to every resident over 65 who has not already applied to receive a ballot in the mail as a proactive measure. For more information on who qualifies to vote by mail, contact the Elections Department.

Curbside voting will also be expanded during November’s election. The department asks that voters who don’t absolutely need to use the service to go inside polling places in order to prevent delays for residents who can’t walk inside.

In addition, the department’s office hours will be extended until 7 p.m. during early voting and 8 p.m. during the last week so that residents can drop off ballots at the office, a newly organized service.

“As long as they are here in person and they have their identification, we’ll be able to accept their ballots at our office,” said Garza. “At any time they actually receive or mark the ballot, they can bring it in.”

Voters can be assured that the department is taking steps to ensure safety inside polling locations as well. Garza explained staff will protect voters “with hand sanitation, social distancing where it’s appropriate, and physical barriers between the checking in and procedure so that there’s limited contact.”

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com