“Make no mistake — there are very powerful forces at work today trying to prevent us from exercising our democratic right,” U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez said outside the Hidalgo County Courthouse on Tuesday.
Those “powerful forces,” Gonzalez said, include voter suppression attempts by the Republican Party and online interference from foreign powers.
The possibility of voter suppression and the counter-possibility of voter fraud have been hot-button issues on the national stage leading into the Nov. 3 election, and are also causes for concern for candidates in Hidalgo County races.
Voter suppression is certainly on Gonzalez’s mind. He sees it as such a threat that he organized Tuesday’s press conference specifically to address factors that could lead to it, citing in particular efforts to stop curbside voting and an order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this month closing all but one mail ballot drop-off sites as a sign that election chicanery was afoot.
“There are forces out there that are trying to prevent people from voting, and these forces are domestic and foreign,” he said. “Domestically here in the state of Texas we have a governor that’s prevented mail in ballots in the middle of a pandemic. He’s limited where ballots can be dropped off — I have a county with 15,000 people, they get one. We have Harris County with 4 million people, they also only get one.”
Gonzalez mentioned other threats to democracy hailing from farther afield than the Governor’s Mansion — specifically online disinformation campaigns from Russia that Gonzalez says FBI Director Christopher Wray confirmed were occurring in September.
“These are things that we need to be alert of when we’re on social media, when we’re receiving news on our phone or through not-conventional media,” he said. “To be very, very careful what you read, what you listen to and what you believe, ultimately.”
Voter suppression efforts and disinformation are particularly important given the relatively small chunk of eligible voters who actually wind up casting a ballot in Hidalgo County, Gonzalez said. He said only about 350,000 of the county’s more than 800,000 residents are registered to vote, and only about half of those actually wind up casting a ballot.
Gonzalez complimented the county’s efforts to make voting more accessible while implementing pandemic precautions, but said the impetus to vote ultimately falls on the average citizen.
“It’s up to us as a community to assure that we go out there and we cast our ballot, that we do the American thing and our democratic duty. If we have to wait in line a little bit, wait in line, but assure that our ballot gets cast,” he said.
So far, Hidalgo County residents have been exercising that freedom more than they did in the last presidential election, but only by a bit.
As of Monday, 89,173 votes have been cast in the first seven days of this year’s early voting, marginally more than the 87,290 cast in the first seven days of early voting in 2016.
Voters this year will, however, have an extra week to early vote. That’s one reason Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez, who is challenging Gonzalez for his congressional seat, says voter suppression is a non-issue in this election cycle.
“Right here in the Rio Grande Valley we have 32 early voting locations that have curbside voting at each of those locations, that’s number one. Number two, we also have an extra week of early voting, so they’re able to go out and vote one extra week,” she said.
De La Cruz-Hernandez also held a get out the vote event Tuesday, a barbecue supper at her campaign headquarters meant to encourage voting and show the congressional candidate’s support for law enforcement.
“I have said today and I will say tomorrow, a vote for Monica is a vote for our first responders,” she told supporters at the rally.
Law enforcement is also foremost in De La Cruz-Hernandez’s mind when it comes to voting. Referencing a currently pending voter fraud case in Hidalgo County, the candidate said she felt steps nominally taken in the name of accessibility to the polls could actually compromise the election.
“By having these additional locations for mail in ballot boxes, not only do we compromise the integrity of this election, but we also open up ourselves to massive voter fraud,” she said.
De La Cruz-Said she feels elections in South Texas are not safe from voter fraud.
“Our county mailed out to everybody over age 65 a mail-in ballot — without verifying if they were alive, without verifying if they still lived at that address and they used taxpayer dollars to do that without a taxpayer vote and without verifying this information,” she said.
Election integrity and potential voter fraud would be high among her concerns for the next two weeks, De La Cruz-Hernandez said, certainly higher than voter suppression or any potential Russian meddling.
De La Cruz-Hernandez did echo her opponent’s opinion on one front, however — the importance of voting.
“We want people to go out and express their voice at the ballot box,” she said. “If they want change or they want their choice of a representative, the only place to have that choice made is at the ballot box.”