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Losing Access: New law to reduce early voting locations

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Denise Cathey

Cameron County Elections Administrator Remi Garza hands out early voting results Saturday evening from the city's municipal election in the Cameron County Courthouse. Cameron County will have to shutdown up to 11 early voting locations due to House Bill 1888's requirements for early voting locations. (Denise Cathey/ The Brownsville Herald)

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A new Texas law will likely close several early voting polling locations in rural areas and at colleges and hospitals in Cameron County.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 1888 into law on June 14. The legislation becomes law officially on Sept. 1.

Cameron County Elections Remi Garza said Cameron County will have to shutdown up to 11 early voting locations.

“They’re limiting early voting locations based on our current interpretation of the statute that an early voting location has to be open the same days and same hours as your main early voting branch is, which for us, is at the courthouse,” Garza said.

Cameron County has been able to provide communities like Santa Rosa, Santa Maria and Rio Hondo, and colleges like Texas Southmost College and the University of Texas at the Rio Grande Valley-Brownsville with early voting locations that are not open a full two weeks, like the courthouse.

Instead, the teams who operate those early voting locations will operate for up to a week before moving to another location, in order to provide registered voters in Cameron County with convenient opportunities to vote early.

The new law requires all early voting locations to be open for two full weeks.

“We’re going to have to make a decision of which locations we’re going to have open for those two weeks,” Garza said.

While Garza said he is still waiting on final directions from the Secretary of State’s Office on the law, his staff are already preparing a list for Cameron County Commissioners Court to consider closing.

For instance, take the Laguna Madre area.

“You have South Padre Island, Port Isabel and Laguna Vista, all connected by a road, all in the same area,” Garza said. “But the Court would have to look at which of those sites they would want to keep open because it would be for two weeks.”

Early voting locations set up at hospitals like Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen and Brownsville are on the short list to be discontinued, as are locations at TSC, UTRGV and Texas State Technical College, which could impact young voter turnout.

“They say in order to get people to vote, you have to get them voting early otherwise it’s a habit that’s hard to establish,” Garza said.

The loss of these polling locations will impact thousands of people.

In the November 2018 election, 5,521 people cast early votes at 11 early voting locations that may be eliminated. During the November 2016 presidential election, 7,175 people case early votes at these locations.

Garza says he thinks the November 2020 presidential election may the largest number of voters in Cameron County’s history.

“I think for the first time in Cameron County’s history we’ll see over 100,000 people vote,” he said.

And when you couple fewer early voting locations with the elimination of straight party ticket voting, Cameron County residents should expect longer lines and waits during early voting as people take longer in the ballot box and wait longer to get into the ballot box.

The legislation, however, didn’t begin with stipulations to make all early voting locations open a full two weeks. Instead, the legislation targeted mobile voting locations, which Cameron County doesn’t use.

But language requiring early voting polling locations to be open for two weeks was inserted at the last minute, which caught Garza off guard because it had previously been removed.

“We were surprised when the section that was deleted was included in the statute,” he said. “It caught me by surprise.”

During debate in the House of Representatives over the bill, opponents argued the Republican-sponsored legislation was tantamount to voter suppression, but supporters said it would provide greater opportunities for early voting because it would keep early voting locations open longer.

The bill also took away local control that counties had over early voting, making the statute uniform for all counties—regardless of population or need.

“It compressed it all so all 254 counties have to work the same way,” Garza said.

For Cameron County, the result will be fewer early voting locations in rural towns, hospitals and colleges and longer lines at early voting locations.

“Every community is different in Texas. You know, we’re a great wide state and we pride ourselves in doing things our own way, depending on what part of the state you are in. I think this was an effective way for us to make it available,” Garza said, of the current use of early voting sites. “And it’s just like we’ve got one arm tied behind our back now.”

Early voting sites to be impacted by House Bill 1888:

< Rio Hondo County Annex Building

< Santa Rosa Maria Luisa Ruiz Guerra County Annex Building

< Santa Maria ISD Administrative Building Board Room

< Riverside Middle School in San Benito

< Valley Baptist Medical Center-Harlingen

< Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville

< Texas State Technical College

< Rancho Viejo City Hall

< Bob Clark Social Service Center

< University of Texas Rio Grande Valley-Brownsville

< Texas Southmost College

Source: Cameron County Elections and Registration Department

mreagan@brownsvilleherald.com

2 images

Denise Cathey

Cameron County Elections Administrator Remi Garza hands out early voting results Saturday evening from the city's municipal election in the Cameron County Courthouse. Cameron County will have to shutdown up to 11 early voting locations due to House Bill 1888's requirements for early voting locations. (Denise Cathey/ The Brownsville Herald)