McALLEN — The Hidalgo County elections administrator lamented what she called misinformation from officials in McAllen trying to keep control of their upcoming municipal elections.
Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramon rejected the idea that traditional polling locations would have to change in McAllen, should the city be forced through a petition to hand over the administration of the upcoming municipal election to Ramon’s office.
“During these very challenging times, I guess, the most difficult thing of my job is reading statements that are not true — reading misinformation that gives the community (information) that is not true,” Ramon said Thursday.
McAllen officials made that claim in a lawsuit the city filed against the state earlier this week, challenging a state law that forces the city to surrender its election to Ramon’s office because of a petition it received in December.
“If the city is required to contract with the county to conduct the election, it will mean that a different set of polling places will be used, which will cause confusion of the voters,” the city argued in its petition for temporary injunction against the enforcement of Section 31.0925 of the Texas Election Code.
“Well, that’s not true,” Ramon said about the claim. “In May (elections), we collaborate with the entities. The entities decide where they want to be, how many machines they want, how many workers they want — they decide everything. We simply administer their elections.”
There are different types of elections, including primary, general and special elections, and they all have layers of different laws that apply to them, Ramon said. November elections, for example, are run by the county by law, so while her office may collaborate with local entities to run their elections, the county has the ultimate say-so.
“May is certainly very different from the others that hold (their elections concurrent with) federal, state and county elections, which are your primaries and your generals,” Ramon said.
The elections administrator also lamented a comment from a McAllen commissioner published in the Advance News Journal that scrutinized the selection of Sylvia Handy, a former Hidalgo County commissioner who stole more than $200,000, to the voter signature verification board ahead of last year’s presidential election.
Handy eventually stepped down from serving on the board after facing public pressure. But despite that, Ramon said her office was not directly involved with the decision.
During a general election, the county election board — comprised of people nominated by the county judge, county clerk, voter registrar, sheriff and county chair of each political party — selects people to serve based on lists provided by the political parties.
Ramon said her office is in the middle of the fight for control over the elections in McAllen and Pharr, but not because it wants to be.
“What’s happening right now with McAllen and with Pharr, you know, we’re the innocent bystander… because my job as the elections administrator, by law, is to run all federal, state and county elections,” she said. “But, by law, if I am asked to administer an election for a (local) political subdivision — anyone — I can not say no.”
Texas counties without an elections administrator rely on their county clerk to run elections and their tax assessor for voter registration. But unlike elections administrators, a county clerk can say no to a request from a local entity.
“So let’s say Mcallen ISD wants me to run the election. I can’t say no, but the county clerk can say no,” Ramon said. “And so we are under so many different laws.”
Additionally, the county did not advocate for the law to be passed, she said about the bill that was authored by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa.
“We didn’t file that bill,” she said. “We didn’t ask the law to be passed.”
Ramon said McAllen and Pharr have always run their own elections, and she’s glad they do.
“I enjoy McAllen and Pharr running their own elections because by law, like I said, I have to run all federal, state and county elections, and the other political subdivisions are in addition to the responsibility that I have in running this department, where I can’t say no,” she said. “But don’t go and say, ‘I don’t want them to run my election because they are this or they don’t do this,’ when it’s not even true facts.
“Them wanting to run their own elections should not be because they don’t want us to. It should be because they want to — they have their own equipment, they have departments.”
Unlike school districts, municipalities have a position assigned to oversee elections: the city secretary.
“I’ve attended the conferences and they’re very well trained. They know what they’re doing,” Ramon said about city secretaries. “And you know, like everyone else, they get criticized, and again there’s no perfection in what we do. And so I completely understand.”
Ramon said the issue was especially frustrating because of the current “climate of negativity” surrounding elections.
“It’s just difficult, like I said, to be such an open target and for people to make statements that cause the community to question the integrity of us running an election. We run incredibly fair and very, very well (elections). Are they perfect? Nothing is perfect,” she said. “Do (we) make mistakes? Absolutely. But never with malintent to change the outcome of an election. You can’t imagine how many times I’ve said that, because it’s true.”
Still, her office is willing to assist any local political subdivision, should the need arise.
“We’re innocent bystanders ready to help you if you want us to, and ready to step aside if you don’t need us to,” she said.
And as far as McAllen and Pharr go, she’s hoping the cities will have a definitive answer for her office by Feb. 16. It’s not a deadline set in stone, but it will allow her staff to comply with a federal law that says ballots must be mailed to citizens and military personnel living overseas 45 days before an election.
A resolution, however, could come as early as next week.
A state district judge in Travis County will hold a hearing on Wednesday to hear arguments for a temporary injunction against the enforcement of the election code that would force the cities to hand over the reins of their elections to Ramon’s office.
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that it was a McAllen commissioner who made the comment about Sylvia Handy and to clarify the process by which she was selected to serve.