|HARLINGEN, April 12 - Challenger Rick Morales says Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell is trying to suppress the Mexican American vote in the upcoming city elections by eliminating voting locations on the traditionally Hispanic west side.
Boswell has responded by saying he had nothing to do with the decision to reduce the number of Election Day polling places and that all parts of Harlingen are heavily Hispanic.
The clash over voting locations is the latest argument in an increasingly bruising mayoral battle, which will be settled on Election Day, May 11.
In past city elections held in May, Harlingen has had ten Election Day polling places. This year, the city commission has settled on 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.
Morales made his claims about voter suppression in a news release issued Wednesday evening. It was titled: Harlingen Hispanic Voter Suppression, the Saga Continues. Morales said it was clearly unfair that Districts 1 and 2 will each have two voting locations on Election Day, while Districts 3, 4, and 5, on the west side of the city, will each have only one.
Morales said this was “another clear sign” that Boswell is trying to “suppress the Hispanic vote” in Harlingen.
“I am extremely concerned regarding the reduction in both Early Voting and Election Day polling locations. It certainly has the appearance that this reduction was designed to negatively affect voter turnout overall and will no doubt reduce voter participation on the west side of Harlingen,” Morales said.
Boswell refuted Morales’ claims. 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, 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 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 Morales’ claim 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.”
The next Harlingen city commission meeting takes place Wednesday, April 17. Morales said he will be there to demand additional Election Day polling locations are added for the west side of the city. “I am asking that Mayor Boswell rectify the situation at the next City Commission meeting by replacing those west side polling locations in our heavily Hispanic areas that were intentionally, or unintentionally removed from this May’s election and additionally, that James Bowie Elementary be added as an Early Voting place as well.”
In his news release, Morales pointed out that Commissioner Leftwich has complained to the Department of Justice over the City Commission’s decision to move the city elections from November to May. Turnout is much higher in November than May. The November 2012 presidential election had over 14,000 voters, Morales said, while May city elections historically draw about 3,500 voters. He said the Hispanic share of the vote in November is about 62 percent. He said it “plummets” to about 50 percent in May elections.