Mail-in ballots may decide close races

Faye Kyzer

SAN BENITO — Local officials’ move to run city and school elections alongside the Nov. 3 general election is expected to draw higher voter turnout while record numbers of mail-in ballots might help decide close, crowded races.

In March, city and school district officials postponed elections originally set for May 2 based on Gov. Greg Abbott’s recommendations stemming from concerns of voter exposure to the coronavirus.

Now, amid higher numbers of new COVID-19 cases, voter requests for mail-in ballots have reached record levels.

At City Hall and school district offices, officials have contracted the Cameron County Elections Department to run the elections.

While the county is charging the city $19,800 to run the election, the district is paying $35,200, Elections Administrator Remi Garza said Wednesday.

Mail-in ballots reach record numbers

This year, mail-in ballots are expected to help decide close races.

“ We’ve already seen an increase in ballots by mail,” Garza said. “It’s going to (draw) a larger percentage of the overall turnout than it has in the past.”

So far, he said, about 8,000 voters have requested mail-in ballots to avoid any exposure to the coronavirus at polling places.

By the Oct. 23 deadline, Garza expects as many as 13,000 voters to have requested mail-in ballots, compared with a total of 3,373 mail-in ballots tallied during the 2016 general election.

Longer early voting period

The Nov. 3 general election’s presidential race, coupled with a longer early voting period, is expected to help it draw higher voter turnout than the May election.

“ I’m expecting a pretty significant turnout,” Garza said.

A longer early voting period is expected to draw more residents to the polls.

The election’s early voting period was originally set to run from Oct. 19 to 30.

But in July, Abbott announced he was extending the early voting period to run from Oct. 13 to 30 to help spread out voters, limiting exposure to the coronavirus at polling places.

“ I think we’re going to get at least 50 percent of registered voters in Cameron County,” Garza said, noting 215,850 residents have registered to vote in the county with an estimated population of about 425,000. “I expect a larger percentage to vote early and by mail.”

City election

Across town, voters are waiting to cast ballots in two of the most hotly contested elections in years.

In the city’s election, 11 candidates are running in four races.

Mayor’s race

In the race for mayor, incumbent Ben Gomez, a parent educator with the San Benito school district, faces former Mayor Celeste Sanchez, a retired assistant superintendent whom he defeated three years ago.

The race heated up when City Commissioner Rick Guerra, a retired firefighter, resigned his Place 3 seat to run for the city’s highest elected position.

Commissioner Place 3

In the race to fill Place 3’s one-year unexpired term, former Commissioner Steve Rodriguez, a trucking company owner, spars with Pedro Galvan, a pharmacist, and Joe Rodriguez, a retired computer analyst.

Commissioner Place 1

In the race for Place 1, Commissioner Tony Gonzales, a retired postal worker who first won election in 2009, faces Rene Garcia, a Social Security Administration employee who serves as vice president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation and vice chairman of the San Benito Housing Authority.

Commissioner Place 2

In a three-way scramble for the Place 2 seat, Commissioner Rene Villafranco, an official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who first won election in 2009, is running against Daniel Cortez, a retired police officer, and Deborah Ann Morales, vice president of Texas Funeral Associates.

School board election

In the school district’s election, 11 candidates are running in five races.

Trustee Place 4

In one of the election’s most heated races, school board President Orlando Lopez, a radiology director, faces Jack Garcia, the district’s former longtime after-school program director who’s served as a former city mayor, in the race for the board’s Place 4 seat.

Trustee Place 5

Meanwhile, incumbent M.L. Garcia, a retired teacher who is Garcia’s aunt, squares off with Rudy Corona, an AT&T technician, in the race for Place 5.

Trustee Place 1

In the race for Place 1, Baldemar Olivarez, a retired law enforcement officer who replaced former school board President Michael Vargas last December, faces Anna Garza Llanes, a home mortgage consultant.

Trustee Place 7

After spearheading a petition drive that led to Vargas’s suspension on the grounds of intoxication, Janie Lopez, a counselor, spars with Santiago Sanchez, general manager of a John Deere dealership, for the board’s Place 7 seat.

Trustee Place 6

In the race for Place 6, incumbent Victor Rosas, a retired firefighter, faces Joseph Galarza, a general contractor, and Ramiro Martin Moreno, a Rio Hondo school district principal.

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