|HARLINGEN, April 15 - A pastor from a church on the west side of Harlingen is urging parishioners to attend Wednesday’s Harlingen City Commission meeting to protest a reduction in polling locations.
“What the city commission has done in reducing the number of polling locations on the west side is voter suppression, pure and simple,” said Eliseo Gonzales, Jr., a pastor at Harlingen Trinity Workshop Center. “It is designed to reduce the Hispanic turnout.”
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.
Gonzales said in years past he used to be able to vote at Jefferson Elementary School near his home. Now he has to go to Jefferson Elementary School, a few miles away. “It is an inconvenience,” he said.
Asked what the reaction will be when west side voters learn that the number of polling locations has been reduced, Gonzales said: “People are going to be upset. A lot of them will not go vote because they are being asked to vote at a new school for them. They are being driven out of their comfort zone and that is not right. It is voter suppression.”
Gonzales and other west side citizens had hoped a couple of city commissioners would have added the subject of polling locations to the agenda for next Wednesday’s meeting but it did not happen. So, he said, he and others plan to make their voices heard.
“I am going to take people to city hall because what is happening in Harlingen today is weakening our democracy. I feel we are going back to the 1950s, to the ways they used to run the cities and the government,” Gonzales said.
Asked to elaborate, Gonzales said: “I hate to say it, with so many white folks in office running cities these days, but things are going back to the way they were in the 1950s. It should not be like that anymore. It could be white folk. It could be brown folk. It could be black folk. What they are doing in closing our school polling locations is not right.”
Former police officer Joe Rubio has been a community activist on the west side of Harlingen for 25 years. He said he has already complained to Harlingen City Commission about the reduction in polling locations on the west side of the city. He said city commissioners have been “messing” with voters in the Rangerville Road barrio for years.
“We were originally given two places to go vote, one was at Treasure Hills and one was at the police department. Being Hispanic and being an ex-police officer I know that our people will not feel comfortable voting at the police department,” Rubio said.
“Now, things have changed again. In this election all the people in the Rangerville Road barrio will be voting at Treasure Hills only. We live in a barrio-type neighborhood. So, going to Treasure Hills will be out of their comfort-zone. They do not go to Treasure Hills.”
Rubio said the people in his neighborhood are used to voting at Ben Milam Elementary and the Bonita Park Annex. “People tend to stick in their own neighborhoods, they like being in a comfort zone. But now we have lost Ben Milam and the Bonita Park Annex. This is voter suppression.”
Rubio said although the voters of the west side of Harlingen have been “let down” by city commissioners that could have put the issue of polling locations on the city commission agenda for next Wednesday, he said there was still time for Mayor Chris Boswell and the city commission to “do the right thing.”
“They could call a special meeting for later in the week or early next week, as long as they give 72 hour notice, and restore the polling locations on the west side. That is what we want,” he said.
In an email to the Guardian, Mayor Boswell said that initially Harlingen City Secretary Amanda Elizondo had made a recommendation to the City Commission to use five polling locations. He said this recommendation was adopted by the City Commission at a meeting on Feb. 6 when he was not present. He said he could not attend because he was at the state Capitol in Austin to testify in support of legislation to create a new UT University with medical school.
Boswell said City Commissioners Danny Castillo, Robert A. Leftwich, Victor Leal, and Michael Mezmar 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, an attorney, 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. He also pointed out that all the districts in Harlingen have roughly the same number of minority voters. “All of the Districts have roughly the same demographic mix within five or six points of each other. All are 83 percent or more Hispanic,” Boswell told the Guardian.
Boswell’s opponent on the May 11 ballot is Rick Morales, a Harlingen businessman and former mayor of Donna. Wednesday’s Harlingen City Commission meeting takes place at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.