Damage control: Hidalgo Co. Democratic Party tries to mitigate primary hiccups for runoff

Lines of voters form outside the Hidalgo Elections Annex during primary elections on Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

The Hidalgo County Democratic Party is trying to piece itself together after stumbling on Election Day, when it closed more than a dozen polls voters expected to be open throughout the county. 

The leaders of the local and state party have since said the closures were caused by a perfect storm of issues, including a new state law, a lack of training opportunities for election workers and an overall unwillingness to work.

“A lot of people are concerned about the status of where the runoffs are going to be, and they just don’t want to see the same situation occur for these really important races coming up,”  incoming Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chair Richard Gonzales said last week.

Gonzales, who was elected to lead the local party in March, will not oversee the Democratic runoff election because he won’t take charge until June 13. Instead, the duties will once again fall on Patrick Eronini, who was appointed chair in December after the elected chair, Norma Ramirez, stepped down to run for county judge. 

Two weeks ago, Eronini was heavily criticized for closing the number of advertised Election Day polling locations from 56 to 41 — a little less than 24 hours before polls opened. Still, he argued, the 41 locations he did open were more than the 28 sites the county elections department opened during the early voting period — which, by law, it has to administer — and more than twice the amount the local Republican Party opened on Election Day. 

“I opened up over 40 locations,” Eronini said about available polling sites on Election Day. “The Republicans had 18 — but I’m the one getting the bad rap?” 

The local Republican Party opened the 18 polling locations it advertised.

Most of Eronini’s criticism, however, stemmed from his decision to close a majority of the polls in western Hidalgo County. Some even called for his resignation. 

“I’m not resigning,” Eronini said last week. “I have a job to do. I still have an election to finish running.”

But whether the party will open more sites on the western side of the county for the runoff election remains to be seen. 

“I don’t know — we’re gonna see how many of the critics want to step up and work,” Eronini said last week. 

His biggest challenge is a lack of manpower. 

“I hope you guys can be more positive about the issues and realize that this is a statewide problem,” he told The Monitor three days after the primary.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa agreed, though he still had some concerns about possibly disenfranchising a large portion of the population in the west. 

“Anytime you advertise that you’re gonna open a polling place and you don’t open it — and you leave out big segments of a part of a community — yeah, it’s a concern. It’s a big concern,” Hinojosa said. “But I know in other parts of the state they had to close polling locations as a result of the party being unable to find election workers.”

The problem is not unique to Hidalgo County, he added. 

Instead, the state’s Democratic Party chair blamed SB 1, a new state law Republicans passed last year, which he said criminalized “innocent” mistakes made by poll workers and gave them little time to train. 

“The laws are so complicated and confusing that election workers just decided they didn’t want to deal with it,” Hinojosa said. “And then when they imposed these criminal sanctions for basically innocent conduct — if it was a mistake — a lot of workers said we don’t need this in our lives. So they had a hard time across the state of Texas getting people to actually volunteer for election workers.”

Some of it also came down to training, they said, with Hinojosa blaming the Texas Secretary of State’s office and Eronini blaming the Hidalgo County Elections Department. 

“The Secretary of State’s office didn’t help at all,” Hinojosa said. “They didn’t do the necessary voter education or education for election workers in time to be able to get people confident that they were gonna be able to do it and at the same time not get prosecuted.”

Eronini noted that all of the election workers in Hidalgo County had to learn the new laws and be retrained to use the voting machines the county was recently forced to upgrade due to another state law. 

And the county only gave the party one day to train their election workers — two days before Election Day. 

“So why does the election department think it’s OK to give us one day of training,” he asked. 

Hilda Salinas, assistant director for the county elections department, said the county initially offered both parties two days of training.

“But at the request of the parties” the training was reduced to one day, she said, with the first half dedicated to training the election workers for the Democratic Party and the second to the Republican Party. 

Still, she indicated, there was an obvious miscommunication between the county and the Democratic Party. And it was most apparent during the training, when the party failed to provide a final list of the election workers it planned to train. 

“It did prove to be very difficult for us to actually communicate with the proper poll workers that were going to be opening and working Election Day,” Salinas said. 

Eronini, however, said he found it difficult to work with Yvonne Ramon, the head of the county elections department, and her staff. 

“The relationship has to be more friendly,” he said. “She was very adversarial in the relationship. I don’t think they (went) out of their way to make us be successful for that one day.”

Eronini criticized the county elections office for not sharing the list of qualified election workers it hired during early voting, but Salinas said some of the workers signed official forms that indicated they did not want to share their information with political parties.

She was adamant the elections office went “above and beyond” in helping the political parties carry out their Election Day duties and said the county went as far as asking its own employees, who chose not to be contacted by political parties, to work Election Day.  

“Mind you, we’ve been working with them already for four years,” she said about the leaders of the local Democratic Party. “So this information has already been shared with them in the past.”

Ultimately, she said, it was the parties’ responsibility to procure enough election workers to man the polling locations on Election Day. 

“You can see the difference. Early voting was administered by our department and it went smoothly,” she said. 

Eronini, however, disputed that assertion. 

“Remember it’s easier to fix something over a two-week period, than to fix something over a one-day period,” he said. “Because if you screw up on the first day of two weeks, well you fix it the second day and the screw up is over. But if I screw up on the one day that I’m responsible for, you know, people are going to complain.”

He also criticized the county for not lending its voting machines to the party so that it could conduct its own training. 

“Why can’t (we) borrow dummy voting machines for training to train people year round,” he asked. 

Salinas said it’s a security matter. 

“We have certain measures that we have in place to make sure that those voting machines are constantly secure,” she said. “We have to abide by the laws that are mandated by the Texas Secretary of State to make sure that those machines are only used to administer elections.”

Gonzales believes the Hidalgo County Democratic Party should have been more aggressive in recruiting election workers earlier and said the party needs to have a more amicable relationship with the county elections department. 

“We should never have allowed it to get to that point. There’s a way to solve that problem months in advance,” the chair-elect said. “What I would like to do is have a better working relationship with Ms. Ramon and say, ‘Look, how can the party and the county better work together to streamline these processes with enough time to make sure that we do not encounter a situation like this again?’ Because it can’t just fall on the county, and it can’t just fall on the party. We work with each other.”

Gonzales suggested hiring a public relations firm and using media outlets to recruit workers. 

“So in a situation like this, we would’ve already been saying months in advance we need workers,” he suggested. 

Ernoni said he didn’t reach out to the media because he felt it was useless. 

“Because we have sent you guys before news announcements,” he said. “You guys just ignore them, so why would I bother?

“We don’t find you guys too friendly to the Democratic Party.”

Eronini, however, could not recall any news releases he previously issued that The Monitor did not publish. Outside of a 2021 news release from Eronini announcing that then-party chair Ramirez would serve as a guest speaker at Edinburg’s FridaFest Women’s Empowerment Program, and reaction to news of Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr.’s retirement, The Monitor hasn’t received any news releases from the party over the last several elections.

It wasn’t until Monday that Eronini submitted a release asking for more poll workers for the upcoming runoff, which The Monitor published Tuesday.

Those interested in working the Democratic runoffs should contact Eronini at (956) 309-5315, or submit their name, phone number, email and home address to [email protected].

But whether those recruitment efforts will bear fruit remains to be seen because Salinas said the county elections department is not planning on hosting any more training sessions for election workers. 

“There’s really no additional training in regards to the runoff because they’ve already had the training,” she said.