WESLACO, Texas – Members of La Unión del Pueblo Entero say they are fearful that politiqueras will run amok at polling locations if Gov. Greg Abbott’s voter restrictions legislation is passed into law.

Under Senate Bill 1, currently under consideration at the state Capitol, poll watchers will be given a lot more power at voting locations, with the ability of election judges to throw them out restricted. The legislation was authored by Republican leaders.

The legislation’s impact in the Rio Grande Valley, LUPE leaders argue, will be to empower politiqueras to intimate voters. 

“This legislation will create a tough environment at polling locations, with poll watchers potentially being disruptive and potentially fighting with other poll watchers. It will not create a very welcoming environment for voters. It would discourage them. That is what I am concerned about. Locally, politiqueras could be poll watchers. They could be in there, being disruptive,” said Danny Diaz, of LUPE Votes, the political arm of LUPE.

Diaz said he is concerned about poll watchers taking pictures and videos inside a polling location.

“These poll watchers will be able to freely record voters with whatever camera they have. They can directly converse with voters more. They can be more disruptive inside the polling location without the election judges having the power to kick them out.”

Diaz said under SB 1 a poll watcher would have to violate the penal code before an election judge could evict them from a polling location.

“Election judges have to be trained. Poll watchers do not go through any training. It seems a little twisted.”

Diaz said he attended a legislative hearing on the voter restrictions legislation during this year’s regular session in Austin. He said Republican members of the committee could not rebut the claims that poll watchers would be able to wield more clout than election judges at a polling location.

Dani Marrero, director of advocacy and communications for LUPE is also concerned.

“We know that there are places in the Valley where voters are intimidated. Unfortunately, there is a very abusive culture sometimes when it comes to access and politiqueras in the Valley. That is something we need to do something about. These voting restrictions are just going to make it more difficult for us to get voters to the polls.”

Mari Regalado is a former president of Texas Democratic Women and a Valley resident. She has worked with politiqueras in the past.

“Traditionally, politiqueras are not poll watchers. They only bring people to vote,” Regalado said. “Several of them have called and approached me in restaurants and grocery stores. They are very concerned that Senate Bill 1 would eliminate curbside voting for the disabled. Many disabled and elderly voters need assistance to get to the polls. If this is stopped it is going to hurt voter turnout.”

Cameron County Democratic Party Chairman Jared Hockema recently held a virtual news conference in opposition to SB 1. The event featured state Reps. Eddie Lucio, III, and Alex Dominguez, both of whom have joined their Democratic colleagues in the Texas House to break quorum so that SB 1 cannot be passed during the special session. The Democrats have gone to Washington, D.C., to push for federal voter protection legislation. 

“If you look at what is proposed in SB 1, you have severe criminal penalties for small mistakes,” Hockema said.

“If a teenage registers to vote 31 days before their 18th birthday, not 30 days, that is a felony. If a voter does not want a poll watcher to look over their shoulder and see how they vote, that is a felony. If a judge tells somebody who is disrupting the polling place to get out and stop it, that is a felony.”

Diaz, of LUPE Votes, recently spoke at a luncheon against Gov. Abbott’s legislation. It was hosted by Diaz’s group, along with Hidalgo County Tejano Democrats, and held at Azure Bistro in San Juan. 

“SB 1 would criminalize the small mistakes of activists that assist voters, the disabled voters, the elderly voters. We have a lot of these at LUPE. Elderly folks that have just become citizens, just become naturalized. It is the first time they vote. They come to us for assistance. We take them to vote. Is that going to be considered vote harvesting? Vote harvesting has a criminal charge under this bill,” Diaz said.

“We feel like this legislation is criminalizing activists and organizations like LUPE, that mobilize people to vote. It is giving power to poll watchers inside a polling location. That is really scary. It is designed to intimidate voters, discourage voters from exercising their rights.”

LUPE’s Marrero helped organize news conference against SB 1 and in favor of the quorum-busting Texas House Democrats outside the Weslaco offices of state Rep. Armando Martinez. Martinez is one of the Texas House Democrats that broke quorum. The news conference was hosted jointly by LUPE and Arise Adelante. Both community groups work in the Valley’s colonias.

“We are outside Rep. Martinez’s office because we want to show that border voters are watching and care deeply about fair and equal access at the polls. And so we want to show that we support the walkout of the Texas House,” Marrero said.

“Texas House Democrats needed to do everything in their power to block any voting restrictions that Greg Abbott and other people at the Texas Capitol want to pass. The voting restrictions that Greg Abbott wants to pass are based on lies. There is no voter fraud happening. There are very real needs Texans have and that is what they (state legislators) should be focusing on.”

Marrero predicted SB 1 would “aversely affect the rights of black and brown voters.” She said there is a lot of support among LUPE members for the Democrats that have broken quorum.

“I think there is a lot of support among our families. We know how important it is to fight for our voting rights. We know that if we don’t pay attention… as predominately a people of color, I don’t think any of us are strangers to how fragile our voting rights are.”

Marrero also had a word for President Biden. She said he needs to do more to pressurize senators to do away with their filibuster rule so that legislation such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act can be passed by a simple majority.

“Democrats now control the Senate, the House and the White House and they promised the American people a lot of things. The voters delivered them a mandate. That we need action on voting rights, we need action on immigration. And so the Democrats need to deliver. And they need to do everything they can,” Marrero said.

“If it turns out that while they controlled the Senate, the House and they White House they were not able to deliver the voters’ mandate, I think the American people will be very harsh judges on that.”

Ramona Casas of Arise Adelante spoke at the news conference outside Rep. Martinez’s office.

“Senate Bill 1 is a very dangerous bill. We need more access to voting, not less. Measures such as online registration and drive thru voting. If voters need assistance they should be allowed to get it,” Casas said.

“SB 1 takes away our opportunities. It is designed to intimidate the voters. As Texans we can do better.”

The colonias of the Valley have a smaller percentage of citizens and voters than the region’s more urban areas. Asked if colonia residents are paying attention to the voter restrictions legislation, Casas said: “We are sending out education packets. Our members have a lot of questions on why politicians want to take away their voting rights. They ask, why can we not continue to vote by mail, if we need to? They do not understand. We tell them this bill will affect more Latinos and African-American voters. That is not good. That is discriminatory. Our community has a lot of concerns.”

Editor’s Note: Rio Grande Guardian marketing intern and Vanguard Academy student Freddy Sandoval assisted with this story from Weslaco, Texas.

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