|HARLINGEN, April 16 - A Harlingen city commissioner says he is going to file another complaint to the Department of Justice about voter suppression efforts in his city.
Commissioner Robert Leftwich said it is obvious why polling locations on the heavily Hispanic west side of the city have been eliminated for the city elections in May – to suppress Hispanic turnout. Leftwich has already complained to the DOJ about the city commission’s decision to move the city elections from November to May, when traditionally far fewer voters go to the polls.
“I have statistical data that shows the West Side favors Hispanic candidates over the Establishment candidates, year in, year out. I will be sending this to the Department of Justice,” Leftwich told the Guardian, in a lengthy interview.
“To me, the decision to remove the polling locations on the west side is intentional discrimination. In the west side precincts, the establishment candidates do not do well.”
In past city elections held in May, Harlingen has had ten Election Day polling places. This year, the city commission whittled it down to seven. The three traditional voting locations to miss out are Harlingen High School South, David Crockett Elementary, and Ben Milam Elementary. The city commission also agreed to have just one Early Voting location, a departure from previous elections.
Boswell said recently that the decision to eliminate some of the polling locations on the west side was not his. In an email to the Guardian, Boswell wrote: “City Secretary Amanda Elizondo made the recommendation to the City Commission to use five polling locations. That recommendation was originally adopted by the City Commission at a meeting I was not present at on Feb. 6 because I was in Austin supporting the University/Med School legislation. “
Boswell said City Commissioners Danny Castillo, Victor Leal, Michael Mezmar and Leftwich voted unanimously to approve the recommendation. “Nothing was mentioned about not having enough (voting locations),” Boswell said.
Boswell said that a Feb. 2 meeting, the city commission added two more polling locations, a second for District 2 and a second for District 4. “Again, there was no objection by any member of the commission or the public. It was the same result for the early voting location at City Hall,” Boswell said.
Boswell said that administratively, the May 11election is being conducted as a joint effort between the Harlingen CISD and the City. For this reason, he said, the polling locations for Election Day are the same for the school district and were likewise approved by the HCISD board of trustees without objection.
“The Mayor does not ‘direct’ where the polling places are. The City Commission and the School Board do that,” Boswell said.
In response to claims that voters on the west side of Harlingen were not being treated fairly, Boswell said: “All of the Districts have roughly the same demographic mix within five or six points of each other but all are 83 percent or more Hispanic.”
In his interview with the Guardian, Leftwich said he thought he had an agreement with his city commission colleague, Basilio “Chino” Sanchez that the pair would place an item on the agenda for Wednesday’s city commission meeting to look again at the whole issue of polling locations for the May elections. Leftwich said he wants the three voting locations eliminated to be restored and an extra early voting location to be added.
“Unfortunately, after I had the action prepared, Chino backed out of supporting me, so I could not make it an agenda item. I wanted to reinstate the west side polling places,” Leftwich said.
Although the voting location issue is not on the agenda for Wednesday, it is expected to come up in the public comment period. Angry community activists from the west side of the city say they plan to attend the city commission meeting to protest the loss of their polling locations.
Leftwich said Mayor Chris Boswell can diffuse a potentially divisive situation. “Mayor Boswell can still do the right thing. He could should show good faith to the Hispanic community and say, you know what, this is a handicap for the west side, let us put the old polling locations back in place,” Leftwich said.
The Department of Justice is getting used to receiving communication from Leftwich. One complaint he sent in is over 200 pages. His biggest beef is that Boswell and the city commission had no authority to move the city elections from November to May. He pointed out that in the November presidential election over 14,000 voters in Harlingen exercised their democratic right. He said city elections in May traditionally only attract 3,500 voters. “That is roughly ten percent of the registered voters,” he said.
Leftwich said the decision to rescind an ordinance that city elections be held in November was taken at a hastily arranged commission meeting held on New Year’s Eve last year. He said he has checked with the Secretary of State’s Office and its elections specialist has sent him correspondence saying the Texas election code does not allow a city to move an election from November back to May. He said he has also checked with the Texas Municipal League and they are mystified. So, armed with this information, he has written to the DOJ’s civil rights division.
The Guardian asked Leftwich why he believes the city election was moved from November to May. He was forthright in his reply: “Mayor Boswell knew that the ratio of Hispanic voters is much greater in November when you have a gubernatorial race or a presidential race. He is terrified of the Hispanic ratios that were coming out. He fought tooth and nail to stop a referendum to move the election to November.”
Asked to respond to Boswell’s contention that all parts of Harlingen are majority Hispanic, with the ethnic breakdown much the same, Leftwich said: “If all districts are the same, why do two of the districts get two Election Day polling locations, and the others, including those on the west side, only get one?”
Leftwich, who is not seeking re-election in May, is backing businessman Rick Morales over Boswell. He said Boswell has never faced a well-funded, credible Hispanic opponent before. This time, he said, he has one in Morales, a former mayor of Donna.
“Boswell knew he was going to have a strong Hispanic opponent. He has never had to deal with that since he was mayor. His camp determined early on that they could never win in November. They said to themselves, we have got to do everything we can, legal or not, to move these elections back to May,” Leftwich said.
“Look at the mayor’s previous opponents. Last time out he had an Anglo candidate, George Merrill. When he first got it in he was up against a black man, Ken Benton This is the first time he has had a strong Hispanic candidate who will put up a fight.”
Leftwich added that the impact of moving the elections from November to May and then reducing the polling locations on the west side is “clear evidence” that the aim all along has been to reduce the influence of the Hispanic voters in Harlingen affairs. “You cannot get it any clearer than this. It is so blatant,” he said. “Mayor Boswell may not be doing it for racial reasons, however. He may be doing it for self-preservation.”