COVID-19 has not prevented Hidalgo County voters from taking part in the elections process as 1,519 more ballots were cast Tuesday than on the first day of early voting in 2016.
There were 24,976 ballots cast early Tuesday, of which 18,807 were in-person and 6,169 by mail. This is 1,519 more ballots cast on the first day of early voting than on the first day in 2016, when 23,457 were cast with 18,525 coming in person and 4,932 by mail.
While Tuesday saw 282 more people at the polls than in 2016, the biggest difference was in the mail-in ballots with 1,237 more compared to four years ago.
Voters in some of the busiest polling locations in McAllen and Edinburg waited up to two hours to cast their ballot in person on the first day of early voting in Texas, while others in neighboring municipalities were in and out within minutes.
Lines began forming before polls opened at 7 a.m. and continued even after polls closed at 7 p.m.
“There are still people in line,” the Hidalgo County Elections Department tweeted at 7:41 p.m.
At about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, elections officials said via Twitter the county had already recorded more than 15,400 in-person votes.
State Rep. Terry Canales said he was one of the first in line at the Elections Annex Building in Edinburg.
“Well, I PLANNED to be the first early voter in Hidalgo County, but 5th place will have to do,” Canales wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday. “At 6:30 a.m. we were 25 deep.”
Long lines continued to form there throughout the day, prompting the Hidalgo County Elections office to warn voters via a tweet shortly after 1 p.m.
“Currently experiencing long lines at our Elections Annex Bldg polling location. The UTRGV poll site currently has no lines,” officials said, directing voters to the neighboring University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Conditions were similar at the Lark Community Center in McAllen, where dozens of voters stood in line for upwards of two hours.
Fernando Hernandez Jr., 36, arrived at 8:30 a.m. to cast a vote alongside his sister and brother-in-law. They didn’t leave until about 10:40 a.m.
“There was a huge line that wrapped around the parking lot, and then it went all the way to the park next to it,” Hernandez said. “And when I left, there was still a line.”
Rodrigo de la Rosa, 54, drove by the center a short while later and was put off by the long lines there and at the Edinburg Annex.
“There was like 100 people at lunchtime, so I decided to wait (to vote),” he said about the Lark location. “And then I looked on the internet and it was really hard to find a (polling) location near me.”
That’s when his friend, 59-year-old Rudy Ramirez, told him about his experience at the polling site at San Juan Fire Station No. 2. In Hidalgo County, voters can cast their ballots at any polling location throughout the county during the early voting period and on Election Day.
“I came real early in the morning and there was no waiting,” Ramirez said at about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday as de la Rosa cast his vote in San Juan from inside his vehicle.
“I’ve been having problems with my back, so I can’t stand too much because it starts hurting even more,” de la Rosa said after he cast his vote. “So I asked for curbside so I wouldn’t have to be waiting.”
Last month, Hidalgo County commissioners agreed to spend $58,000 in federal virus relief money to facilitate curbside voting at every polling location. And it could become an issue if the Texas Republican Party catches wind of it.
On Monday, the party filed a lawsuit asking a court to limit curbside voting in Harris County and halt the county’s drive-thru voting programs, the Texas Tribune reported.
“It’s horrendous that they’re trying to do that,” de la Rosa said.
The 54-year-old, who has diabetes, also took issue with Gov. Greg Abbott’s limit on mail-in drop off locations, a policy upheld by an appeals court on Monday. Regardless of the size of the county or its population, voters can only drop off ballots in person at a single location.
“So a lot of people that are elderly or have a handicap or don’t have a vehicle or a bus to go to, or money to take a taxi to go do it, now they only have one location,” de la Rosa said. “They have to travel literally tens of miles just to get there. It’s shameful what they’re doing.”
Supporters, however, argue the governor actually expanded voting by allowing voters to drop off the ballots in person throughout the early voting period. Before, they could only be dropped off on Election Day.
In Hidalgo County, voters can drop their mail-in ballot in person at the Hidalgo County Elections office, at 213. S. Closner Blvd. in Edinburg. But only the person casting the ballot can drop it off, and voters should be prepared to show identification.
Most of the voters who spoke to The Monitor on Tuesday said they felt relatively safe casting ballots despite the threat of COVID-19, which has claimed nearly 2,000 lives in Hidalgo County alone.
“They have everything there clean,” Hernandez said about the Lark Community Center. “You don’t have to use your hands to touch anything. You wear your mask and they have hand sanitizer there at different sections, and people are respectful in the lines. They keep their distance.”
Erica Rios, 38, also felt safe casting her ballot in San Juan. It took her about 15 minutes to vote after finishing work at neighboring IDEA San Juan College Prep, where she teaches special education.
“I liked that we were able to use the Q-tip to vote instead of having to touch the screen,” she said. “It was safe.”
And while many declined to say what drove them to the polls, Rios was quick to answer.
“Abortion,” she said. “All life is precious, and I especially see that in special ed. Those kids are amazing.”
At least a dozen of her colleagues also joined her in casting their ballots. The school held off on its usual after-school meeting and encouraged staff to vote.
“Basically, all the people around us were teachers from the school,” IDEA teacher Edwardo Lopez said. “So that was pretty nice.”
Early voting is expected to continue until Oct. 30. Election Day is Nov. 3. For a full list of early voting locations and hours of operation, visit https://www.hidalgocounty.us/105/Elections-Department .