Voting Curbside: Cameron County sets early balloting record

HARLINGEN — It’s an election as unprecedented as the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, voters like Hilda Saldivar were finding more ways to cast their ballots as early voting opened for the Nov. 3 general election.

“It’s very different because of the mail-in ballots and the curbside voting,” Saldivar, a retired teacher, said outside the Harlingen Convention Center, one of the Cameron County Elections Department’s three new early voting “super centers.”

Across the county, about 10,000 voters had cast early ballots by the end of the day — a new record, Remi Garza, the county’s elections administrator, said.

“It’s been really significant,” he said. “There are a whole lot of people eager to participate in this election.”

In Harlingen, steady streams of voters were filling out their ballots as they sat in their cars in front of the new convention center as part of the county’s plan to limit exposure to the coronavirus.

“Essentially, it’s curbside,” Garza said. “We were looking to provide that service sort of isolated. Based on usage, that’s pretty popular.”

Inside the convention center, voting booths give residents the option of casting their ballots the old-fashioned way — with social distancing factored in.

“It’s very thorough health-wise,” Jaime Saldivar, a retired Texas State Technical College official, said after casting his vote. “There are plenty of voting booths — they’re all spaced out.”

Super centers

By mid morning, the Harlingen Convention Center site had become the county’s second most popular voting place behind the Brownsville Public Library, which has traditionally drawn the area’s biggest early voting turnouts, Garza said.

Across the county, super centers are drawing voters in big numbers.

In Brownsville, voters are casting their ballots at the Brownsville Events Center while in Port Isabel they’re voting at the Port Isabel Event and Cultural Center.

“We’ve seen a lot of people participating in the super centers,” Garza said. “It’s the first time we’ve done it so we didn’t know what we were facing.”

Two nonprofit grants are helping the county come up with rent payments ranging from $47,000 to $58,000 for the three-week early voting period, he said.

Mail-in ballots

This year, Garza expects more voters to cast early or mail-in ballots.

On Election Day, mail-in ballots might be deciding close races.

About 11,000 voters have requested mail-in ballots to avoid any exposure to the coronavirus at polling places — a new record far surpassing the previous milestone of 3,373 mail-in ballots tallied during the 2016 general election, Garza said.

Three-week early voting period

A longer early voting period is expected to draw more residents to the polls.

The election’s early voting period was originally set to run from Oct. 19 to 30.

But in July, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was extending the early voting period to run from Oct. 13 to 30 to help spread out voters, limiting exposure to the coronavirus at polling places.

This year, Garza is counting on drawing at least 50 percent of the county’s registered voters to the polls.

With an estimated population of about 425,000, the county’s number of registered voters stands at about 215,850.

fdelvalle@valleystar.com