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EDINBURG — The formation of voting centers for the upcoming November elections continues to be a hot-button topic with Yvonne Ramon, director of the Elections Department, recommending adding 31 voting sites at this week’s Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court.

Using the voter center concept, any Hidalgo County resident could vote at any voting site regardless of whether it was located in the precinct where they lived.

Judge Ramon Garcia questioned whether the purpose of voting center might be to reduce the number of locations for voting and save money by creating centers convenient to voters.

Ramon said the voting centers being recommended were suggested by an elections committee. The group is requesting a total of 61 polling sites; approximately 31 are new locations. Some of the sites had been used in the 2012 presidential election but not in the   2011 constitutional election.

According to Ramon, the only true way to measure whether voting centers increase voter participation was to run a test similar to a previous election. To do so, she would use the 2011 constitutional election as her basis rather than the presidential election, which received a very high percentage of voters. If opening new voting centers where voters could vote anywhere instead of just in their precincts didn’t increase voter participation, the county could revert back to the precinct-style of voting.

Of the 61 sites chosen two were one each in Alton, Donna, Edcouch, Elsa, Granjeno, Hargill, Hidalgo, La Joya, La Villa, McCook, Mercedes, Monte Alto, Palmhurst, Peñitas, Progreso, San Carlos and Sullivan City. Alamo had two. Another 10 were located in McAllen, six in Mission three in Palmview, four in Pharr, two in San Juan and four in Weslaco.

Members of the committee presented their thoughts on the concept. Eli Olivarez, committee chairman said with the centers selected, the committee expected higher voter turnout because of convenience. Anticipated growth was as much as 20 percent.

Cynthia Reyes read a letter in support of he voting center concept from state Sen. Juan “Chuey” Hinojosa.

Ann Cass, who represents the colonias and migrant workers, said she was saddened by committee reaction to the people who spoke in favor of additional voting sites, because of transportation problems in getting to the polls. The people who spoke were not shown respect, she said.

Rosalee Weisfeld, another committee member, said there was no data to show the importance of those locations and asked if the committee had studied the budgetary impact of opening so many new voting centers.

Weisefeld said while she did not want to see long voting lines, the potential for voter suppression still existed because of the locations chosen.

Seven previous voting sites were being eliminated or replaced. One of those was Gonzalez Elementary in McAllen, which traditionally had high voter participation; it was replaced with the McAllen Public Library. Some felt Gonzalez Elementary should still be used as a polling site.

Other questions included why Pharr needed four sites when previously there was only one and why Edinburg needed 13 sites instead of four.

Of special concern to the Objective Watchers of the Legal System (OWLS) was the fact that 15 of the locations were in schools after being told part of the job of the elections committee was to find other location to get elections out of schools for security purposes. Two were also located in youth centers.

Annette Muñiz said the committee had tried to steer away from schools for security purposes. Under current law a school cannot refuse to hold an election.

Instead of voting to approve the 61 sites, Garcia said he wanted commissioners to study the sites further.

In other matters, OWLS member Fern McClaugherty spoke during open forum and questioned why taxpayers were being asked to pay for two county officials’ travel error. Richard Alvarez of the county judge’s office and Mariano Manzano submitted charges for $150 ($75 each) charged to Alvarez’s credit card for same day airline ticket changes. The two traveled to Washington on census related business.

The item was not approved for payment by the county auditor and was on the commissioners’ agenda for reimbursement. There was a statement from Alvarez saying the ticket change was necessary. On another piece of documentation, there was a handwritten note saying the two men went to the wrong airport. By mistake they went to Dulles Airport instead of going to Reagan where their flights were located, officials said. They then changed their tickets to fly out of Dulles at a cost of $75 each and submitted the cost of the changes to the county for payment.

McClaugherty told commissioners if the two men were forced to pay for their own mistakes, they would be careful to go to the correct airport the next time they traveled for the county. No action was taken on the issue.

An update on I-69 was given. In new action, the area of SH 77 from east Brownsville to north of Donna was been declared part of an I-69 East corridor. Another 13 miles from Pharr to Edinburg along SH 281 will not be designated as I-69 Central.

A 46-mile section of U.S. Expressway 83 from the Harlingen interchange west to Showers Road, located west of Mission has been designated I-2. These changes for federal highways will make it easier to gain federal dollars to do road construction projects instead of just relying on funds from the State of Texas.

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