HARLINGEN — Amid upswings in early voting turnouts across the area, voters go to the polls today as incumbents fight for their seats in elections that could shift the balance of power on the Harlingen and San Benito city commissions.

In Harlingen and San Benito, higher early voting numbers hint at strong Election Day turnouts in races in which challengers are calling for change.

During the early voting period running from April 27 through Tuesday, 1,295 residents cast votes along with 241 mail-in ballots as of Friday morning, compared with 1,034 early votes with 184 mail-in ballots during the 2018 election.

“As far as turnout, it was a little bit more than the previous year,” City Secretary Amanda Elizondo said, noting city and school officials are running a joint election.

“Maybe it’s because we have more candidates and since it’s a joint election people are coming out and voting at the city and school (elections),” she said.

In the school board election, 2,064 residents cast early votes, including seven provisional ballots along with 472 mail-in ballots as of Thursday, compared with 1,480 votes with 330 mail-in ballots in 2018.

In San Benito, 1,221 residents cast early votes in the city election, up from 1,075 during the 2018 election.

In the city’s school board election, 1,561 residents cast early ballots compared with 1,287 votes in 2018.

“The early vote turnout was very encouraging,” said Remi Garza, Cameron County’s elections administer who’s running the San Benito elections.

“I think there was a lot of interest generated by the candidates in the election,” he said. “They had a very strong presence at the voting place. They generated a lot of activity.”

Voter apathy

Still, voter apathy runs high in local elections amid the county’s strong voter registration push.

In Harlingen, the pool of registered voters has climbed to 36,186, while 46,315 residents are eligible to vote within the larger school district boundaries.

In San Benito, the county’s voter registration drive has boosted the number of voters eligible to cast ballots in the city election to 12,693.

Meanwhile, the school district’s voter pool as climbed to 20,907.

Harlingen city election

In Harlingen, races drawing challenges to three-term incumbents Michael Mezmar and Victor Leal have stirred up one of the hottest elections in years.

Meanwhile, two-term Commissioner Ruben De la Rosa’s decision not to seek re-election has sparked a four-man scramble in the race for his District 4 seat.

In the race for the District 3 seat, Mezmar, a financial analyst, faces former City Commissioner Robert Leftwich, a real estate broker who served in office from 2007 to 2013, when he chose not to seek re-election.

In the tussle to fill De la Rosa’s District 4 seat, the ballot includes former City Commission Basilio “Chino” Sanchez, a retired newspaper production technician who served in office from 2012 to 2015; Frank Morales, who is semi-retired after working as a salesman; Xavier Jaramillo, who works for Valley Wide Sprinkler Systems; and Anselmo Aparicio Jr., a counter salesman.

In February, De la Rosa, who first won office in 2015, said he wouldn’t seek re-election after deciding to move his family to a home in District 5.

In the race for the District 5 seat, Leal, a businessman, faces Rene Perez, a school teacher.

San Benito city election

In San Benito, the commission’s balance of power hinges on two seats up for grabs.

Six months after losing his bid for a second term as the city’s top elected official to Mayor Rick Guerra, former Mayor Ben Gomez, a school district parent educator, is back on the ballot, this time squaring off with incumbent Pete Galvan and Jesus Ernesto Loperena, a territory manager, for the Place 3 seat.

In last November’s election, Galvan, a pharmacist, won the unexpired term which Guerra left open after he resigned to run for the city’s top elected position.

In the race for the Place 4 seat, incumbent Carol Lynn Sanchez, an attorney vying for her second full term in office, faces Victor Rosas, a retired firefighter and former San Benito school district trustee who serves on the city’s housing authority.

Harlingen school board election

In Harlingen, challengers are vying for two contested spots on the school board.

In the race for the board’s Place 4 seat, incumbent Bobby Muñiz, a pharmacist, faces Adrian Garcia, a realtor.

Meanwhile, incumbent Dr. Belinda Reininger, regional dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health in Brownsville, faces Israel Aguilar, who serves on the faculty of the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

San Benito school board election

In one of the area’s hottest elections, eight candidates are running for three spots on the San Benito school board.

In the race for the board’s Place 1 seat, incumbent Anna Garza Llanes, a mortgage loan officer who won her seat in the November election, faces Ariel Ann Cruz, a pharmacist.

In a three-way scramble for Place 2, incumbent Sonia Weaver, a retired teacher, squares off with former school board member Mario Silva, a sales representative, and Rosalinda Garcia, a realtor.

Meanwhile, incumbent Janie Silva is pitted against former school board member Oscar Medrano, a former hospital volunteer services coordinator, and Lupita Monsevalles, a retired district mentor teacher facilitator and longtime school principal.