Johnny Ramirez with the Hidalgo County Elections Office demonstrates how to set-up a voting machine at Bert Ogden on Thursday in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

EDINBURG — A group of over five dozen people sat in silence as they awaited for their training to begin Thursday. Wearing masks, the group of trainees sat spread out throughout sections 108 and 109 of Bert Ogden Arena. The jumbotron hung a few feet above the Rio Grande Valley Vipers logo at center court, displaying a presentation with training protocols.

At 8:45 a.m., Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón walked in front of the jumbotron and began the training session for the would-be poll workers in the Nov. 3 general election — which not only has a bevy of local, state and federal races on the ballot, but one of the most contentious presidential elections in recent history in which President Trump has already been noncommittal in accepting defeat should it come to that, and all in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

No pressure.

“Due to the need of more poll workers, we put out a media blitz requesting those that perhaps have never considered being a poll worker to consider coming to work,” Ramón said.

The two-day training sessions saw about 150 trainees participate, most of whom had never worked as poll workers. Such was evident when Ramón asked for a show of hands from individuals who had worked elections in the past, of which nearly every hand in the crowd rose.

“Usually we have our retirees who are able to take the time,” Ramón said. “This time we’re seeing a variety of people due to the pandemic. People are either not working or maybe having a type of job where they can do it at home in their own time. So that has freed up more people to be able to help us at this time, a critical time, because this is going to be a very, very large ballot.”

According to Ramón, this year’s ballot will be the largest ever with 118 different ballot styles.

This year marked the first time that the poll worker training was hosted at Bert Ogden Arena. Due to the pandemic, the county decided to use the arena as it created more room for social distancing and other safety protocols.

The training consisted of an introductory portion where the trainees learned about the different forms of identification and procedures for any complications they may have in different scenarios, as well as any laws that may have changed.

The trainees were then divided into three groups and rotated to three stations where they learned about election paperwork, laptop training, and how to assemble and manage the voting machines.

They were also shown how to clean the voting machines after every use, and new practices available for voters including disposable styluses.

This year, there will be 31 early voting locations, which will be available for a total of 18 days, and 74 locations for Election Day, one of those locations being Bert Ogden Arena.

Ramón explained the need for more poll workers to help manage the voting machines as well as other duties. She explained that in some areas of the state, poll locations were forced to close due to a lack of poll workers.

“It’s a challenging, scary, difficult time, and we respect that,” Ramón said. “But at the same time, elections don’t stop. Elections keep going.”

Ramón said that the trainees will be working with experienced judges who can provide them with assistance should they need it.

Polling judges go through training exercises on how to set-up voting machines at Bert Ogden Arena on Thursday in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

“Although they’ve been here all day, when they walk away, they’re not going to know everything. And we understand that,” Ramón said. “So we try to put them with an experienced team so they learn on the job. That’s an ideal situation because we’re not always able to do that. We don’t always have enough workers.”

“I saw some faces of some people who’ve come back — they haven’t helped us in a couple of years. I’m glad that they’re back because they’ve worked elections, and now they’re just refreshing.”

With about 150 people participating in the training, Ramón said that she felt immense gratitude for those in attendance.

“I tried to show my sincere gratitude. I always thank them,” Ramón said. “I’ve started my 13th year, and one thing that I’ve always wanted to do is to honor our poll workers, especially those who have retired.”

Anna Garza, 46, of Weslaco was one of the trainees during Thursday’s session. She said that she’s worked elections on and off for nearly 30 years. She said that the training this year has greatly improved in comparison to previous years.

“It’s just something we do to give back to the community when we can, especially with this election,” Garza said. “I have a training background, and coming from a training background, this training is phenomenal. They’ve made a lot of improvements, colored pictures to go along with each step. They’ve done an awesome job as far as the training.”

Norma Galaviz-Guerrero, 68, of Edinburg said that she had never been a poll worker before, but she’d always wanted to. She said that she decided to give it a try now that she’s retired.

“I think so far I’m enjoying it. It’s very educational,” Galaviz-Garza said. “I like being busy. I’m a busy bee.”

Carmel Loredo, 48, of Mercedes said that this was also her first experience as a poll worker. She was also impressed with the detailed training provided by the county.

Dixie Goro learns how to set up a voting machine during the Hidalgo County Elections Office’s training at Bert Ogden on Thursday in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

“The reason I’m doing this is because I’d seen it in the news that they needed poll workers. I’m at home, I’m a housewife, and I decided that I’d give something back to my community and help out,” Loredo said. “Especially right now with the pandemic, a lot of people don’t want to come out and help. They’re afraid probably of getting exposed to COVID-19. I think it’s our right to help our country.”

There are still opportunities to become poll workers. For more information, visit www.https://www.hidalgocounty.us/105/Elections-Department, or call (956) 318-2570.

Early voting runs from Oct. 13 to Oct. 30. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.