|PHARR, February 23 - Cutting a deal with an adult day care center owner can be one of the most productive vote harvesting operations an unscrupulous political candidate can undertake.
This is how it works. The candidate cuts a deal with an adult day care provider and not only gets a campaign worker, or politiquera, to bus dozens of elderly voters to the polls, but also insists that the voters need “assistance” when casting their vote. The politiquera offering the assistance ensures that the voter votes the right way.
Such operations are not uncommon in Hidalgo County during the early voting period of the primary season. However, the practice was taken to a whole new level last Tuesday, the first day of early voting. Between 300 and 400 elderly voters that go to adult day care centers were bused in to the Pepe Salinas Memorial Civic Center in Pharr for a lunchtime dance. After being fed and entertained, the voters were to be walked across the ballroom over to the early voting location, which just happened to be in the same center, and assisted with their vote.
The operation could have harvested 300-plus votes for a slate of three local candidates, a handy total to have on the first day of early voting. However, Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra stepped in and stopped it. Guerra drove over to Pharr’s only early voting location and warned that the noise emanating from the dance could be a distraction for those going to vote. And he warned the adult day care operators that soliciting votes within 100 feet of a polling location was a violation of the Election Code. Guerra told the Guardian that one particular candidate called him afterwards. The candidate was fuming that his vote harvesting operation had been curtailed. A rival candidate to one of those who had put on the dance excitedly called the Guardian to say Guerra’s actions had prevented 300 to 400 votes being cast for a slate of three candidates.
Guerra spoke about the incident at the Pharr center while appearing on an Action 4 News/News Talk 710/Rio Grande Guardian candidate forum held in Weslaco last Tuesday evening.
“I received a complaint in the Pepe Salinas Civic Center. You have one portion where we are conducting this important election. In the other portion of that facility they were bringing in day care clients. I got wind that perhaps one of the candidates for office was sponsoring that dance. They were going to secure food for the participants,” Guerra said.
“Because it is within 100 feet of the polling place I took it upon myself to go over there and stop that dance. It was going to distract the voting next door with loud music and second, if anyone was solicited to vote there, within 100 feet, it would be in violation of the election law. And that is what I tried to stop.”
Guerra said after issuing his warning he left. “I do not know if the dance was stopped but I asked them not to. I made some calls to some day care operators that I know, that are friends of mine, that are supporting me, and I asked them to please to not send those clients there because I did not want them to be in the middle of an investigation later on.”
Guerra’s opponent in the DA’s race, Ricardo Rodriguez, was also asked about the Pharr incident during the Weslaco debate. “I got a call myself that some candidates felt that there was threats that were being made out there. This is what they were telling me. It could be speculation. It could be what they want to say. As to the incident that was going on in Pharr, that is the only information that I got,” Rodriguez said.
Paul Vazaldua, a candidate for Justice of the Peace, in Hidalgo County’s Precinct 2, Place 2, is a veteran campaign worker. He believes Guerra’s actions in Pharr last Tuesday have deterred adult day care center operators from instigating similar vote harvesting operations.
“I do not see as many campaign workers driving adult day care clients to the polls this year. I think they are afraid of being arrested,” Vazaldua said. “I have been keeping watch during the first week of early voting on how many adult day care centers are coming in and how many voters are being brought in and definitely compared to years past the process has slowed down after the Monday incident.”
At a debate on politiqueras hosted by Young Democrats of South Texas College in McAllen in January, Vazaldua said Hidalgo County Democratic Party should raise funds to run a hotline and bus system in order to take housebound voters to the polls. He said this transportation effort should be independent of individual candidates. In an interview on Saturday, he repeated this suggestion. He said before the early voting period started he visited every adult day care center in his precinct.
“There is no doubt that voter assistance is required. During my visits to the adult day care centers throughout my precinct I was able to find individuals and speak to them who told me ‘my daughter does not want to take me to vote, please tell the adult day care center to take me.’ So, there is definitely a need out there to have access to the polls and some assistance. Individuals have said, yes, I will vote but I need help reading the ballot. It happens. If we are cautious enough to help the elderly with voter assistance then there is no violation of the law,” Vazaldua said.
However, Vazaldua made it clear he was not defending what happened at the Pepe Salinas Memorial Civic Center. “If the proximity is too close to the polling location then we have to follow the rules. The rules have to be followed. But I believe there is a way to provide the assistance without violating any rules.”
Vazaldua added: “We have to try to continue to find a way to get the voters to the polls. I have been an advocate for voter registration and voter turnout all of my adult life. We need to identify ways to do it. Part of my plan is that I want the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the Elections Department to provide a means of transportation for individuals. If having voters brought in by an adult day care center is going to be viewed as a violation of the law then let us have an independent party provide transportation for these people. They are voters. They are registered and they are eligible and they should get to the polls.”