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Problems with voter assistance evokes new legislation draft

LA JOYA — Allegations of a new element in voter and employee intimidation struck here this election cycle as employees of the La Joya Independent School District reportedly brought assistants to help them cast their vote.

“That’s not the intent of the voting process,” said Dr. Filomena Leo, LJISD’s former superintendent who believes voter assistance could be used against employees with serious repercussions. “This is a freedom we enjoy that comes with confidentiality. This brings fear, intimidation and coercion.”

Leo and several other residents including LJISD board candidate Eden Ramirez said they saw district employees escorted to vote this week when they didn’t need assistance as described in the state’s voting statutes.

But LJISD board President Jose A. “Fito” Salinas said voter assistance is common here and attributed any alleged assistance to Election Day nerves.

“First-time voters get very nervous,” Salinas said. “I don’t care how smart you are, sometimes people are afraid to make a mistake and want help.”

According to the Secretary of State’s Office election code, a voter is entitled to receive assistance if they are unable to read or write or if they have a disability that prevents them from reading or marking their ballot.

Voters can be assisted by a person of their choice or election workers, but their employer can’t assist them nor an agent of their union. Should a voter choose an election worker to assist them in casting their ballot, poll watchers and inspectors can observe the process, but in assistance from the voter’s choosing, the process can’t be observed. The assistant is required to take an oath promising they won’t influence the voter’s decision.

Ramirez said he watched teachers and assistant principals get help as they voted this week with no enforcement of the Election Code.

“They’re lowering the standards and expectations of our community,” Ramirez said of candidate mandates for the voter assistance. “They’re stating our community is unable to vote on their own. It’s an insult to our community.”

Salinas said he knows of no such mandate. In fact, Salinas said he hadn’t heard of any educators assisted in voting outside of media reports.

“I really don’t believe that,” he said of the accusations. “I would like to have asked for names. Ask Eden for the names.”

Flaws in the Law

Leo estimates that more than 1,000 people in the district’s election received voting assistance. At one polling site, Leo said 230 people received help and at Hidalgo County Precinct No. 3’s office, politiqueras were on standby to help people vote.

“I refuse to believe that many people need assistance,” she said. “I know these individuals.”

The major flaw in the law is the lack of accountability in ensuring that a voter really needs assistance. According to the Election Code, voters don’t have to prove they have any disability. Additionally, a voter has no privacy if their assistant watches them make their selection.

LJISD candidates recently joined an injunction to stop similar practices in the Hidalgo County Precinct 1 race where Mercedes Mayor Joel Quintanilla said voters were assisted in making their selections when they didn’t have any disabilities.

“We shared the sentiment,” Leo said of Quintanilla’s injunction.

That injunction was squashed after District Judge Rudy Delgado said the Election Code didn’t specify that a voter has to prove they have a disability.

“They’re saying their hands are tied,” Leo said.

Leo said she’d like to see new legislation that allows for enforcement.

“The current law has good intent, but it doesn’t say who will determine” any disability, Leo said. “Everyone’s saying their hands are tied, that it’s a violation to ask about a disability, but I don’t think so.”

Michael Barnes, an eighth-grade history teacher in the Edcouch-Elsa school district who serves as the Hidalgo County director of Precinct Chairs for the Hidalgo County Young Democrats, said polling site workers aren’t left with any options.

“That’s what’s frustrating,” Barnes said. “We can’t probe. We can’t ask if they’re being threatened in any way. That’s why it’s important for people to know that they can always ask for help from a clerk.”

In May, Barnes watched Justice of the Peace candidate Hilda Caceres assist 40 voters in a single day.

“She seemed excited every time she rapidly recited from memory the oath we required her to take for each and every voter she assisted,” said Barnes who is seeking to be the state chair for the Texas Democratic Party.

While people questioned Barnes and his authority as the precinct’s election judge, Barnes told them he found nothing in the state’s statutes that wouldn’t allow a candidate to assist a voter. In the Hidalgo County Commissioner Precinct 1 election, voter assistance became a widespread way to guarantee votes for a candidate, Barnes explained.

“Until the state legislature decides to strengthen the rules and regulations, at least by forbidding candidates on the ballot from serving as an assistant, there is little we can do,” he added.

Drafting A Solution

State Rep. Aaron Peña (D-40) said he’s frustrated and fed up with a system that allows for the abuse of elderly and the electoral process. After seeing first hand how politiqueras work, Peña said he’s eager to use his position as the vice chair of the elections committee to draft change.

“People can simply buy elections and bring voting assistants for people who are able-bodied, speak English and are obviously intelligent,” Peña said. “It’s just so offensive to our democracy.”

Peña said he’s been an advocate against the use of politiqueras and while other politicians may agree with him, they rarely follow through.

The only way the current abuse of the system can be changed is with a new law that only allows a person to assist two people voting, whom Peña said he’d generally prefer to just be limited to a person’s grandparents. Under his draft, an assistant will still be required to take an oath and provide photo identification. On Wednesday following the election, Peña said he was in Austin sifting through additional suggestions.

“We’ve been inundated with suggestions,” he said.

Barnes, who said he was excited to see a local legislator working on voter assistance restrictions, said the state might not be as eager.

“I don’t know if the state will go for it,” he said.

Leo, who said she didn’t know about any efforts to change the law, believes legislators’ efforts to restrict voter assistance is a step in the right direction.

“There are a number of individuals who want to continue the effort to see the practice eliminated or diminished,” Leo said.

Despite any future change, Peña admitted corrupt factions would be willing to challenge that effort.

“I’m sure they’ll find another way around it,” he said.

Following this election cycle, voters are already saying they’re fed up with voting and intimidation at the polls to a point where they don’t want to participate in the next election. But Peña said he urges people to continue to participate in the process and to demand that change be brought forth. This election cycle should be a wakeup call, he added.

“When good people begin leaving the process the corrupt take over,” he explained. “The political machine has corrupted the process. We’re just over our corruption and a stop needs to be put to it.”

Those who attack the new proposed legislation are the same participants who engage in voter assistance, hire politiqueras that are against measures like voter ID and limited terms, he said.

“Here’s what happened: South Texas politics is about government contracts and awarding their friends those contracts. It shouldn’t be like that,” Peña said. “And it’s not a secret anymore. If we want to recapture our government we begin here.”

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