Why Bother: Fighting Corruption in Rio Grande Valley
This story was reported for the “Why Bother” series in collaboration with KLRU and The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life. Find more at whybothertexas.org
Eliza Alvarado’s workplace looks like just like a candidate’s election headquarters in the final days of a competitive race. Signs, flyers, stickers and buttons are stacked on tables and along the walls. People are working the phones to get support. But Alvarado and her group, the Advocacy Alliance Center of Texas, aren’t pushing a candidate. They’re pushing a lifestyle change. She’s trying to get people in the Rio Grande Valley to vote.
“The statistic that we hit is 2 out of 10 voters here in the Rio Grande Valley,” Alvarado said. “And 6 out of 10 vote average in the state of Texas. So we want to reach 65 percent. We want to be 5 percent above the state average.”
Alvarado says there’s no shortage of national voter programs coming to the valley to get more people to the polls. But those programs tend to show up only every four years during presidential elections.
“Which is great, I mean, we completely support that,” Alvarado said. “However, if we want this to be a cultural change and if we want this to be something that is sustained, this needs to be here. It needs to be grown here. It needs to be from someone here.”
Alvarado wants to grow voter rolls by collecting as much data as possible over several years, figuring out who is and isn’t voting – and even calling participants up to find out why. During her outreach, some people, especially younger voters, have said the perception of political corruption is one reason why they don’t vote.
“You know, a lot of people are discouraged,” Alvarado said. “They say the same people get elected. They don’t feel that their voice is being heard.”
In Hidalgo County, some call it voter fraud or coercion or even vote harvesting. All are run through people called politiqueras. They spend the year making connections and even friendships with locals, creating a list of people who will vote the way they tell them to. They then offer that list to local candidates – for a price. Renee Salinas is a longtime political activist in the Eastern Hidalgo County town of Elsa.
“I heard one politica (sic) say that she had 500 votes lined up for anybody who was willing to buy them,” Salinas said.
And this isn’t just for federal or state races. County commissions and school boards are heavily contested and use the politiqueras to win elections because of the winner’s ability to control hundreds of thousands of dollars in business contracts.
“There is just an underlying corruption as far as what these people will do to hold on to power,” Salinas said.
Almost everyone in this county has a story of politiqueras taking money to get people to the polls. But those claims have not yet led to an investigation. Here’s what is being investigated: so-called voter assistance. Under normal circumstances, it’s the perfectly legal practice of letting a friend help a disabled or illiterate person to cast a ballot inside the voting booth.
“In the last couple of county/state elections and local school board elections, too many people are being assisted to vote,” said Hidalgo County District Attorney René Guerra. “Too many, way too many.”
Guerra claims local adult daycares are being bought by candidates either through friendships or cash, which leads to mass assisted voting.
“They’re being hauled in in busses or vans owned by the daycare centers to go vote,” Guerra said.
And it’s not just the elderly being used to boost a candidate’s vote totals. Flores de la Ruiz is also from Elsa. She says just last week, cafeteria workers at the local school district were told by their manager they would be heading to the polls together.
“The manager told the rest of the workers that if they didn’t vote for the right party, that that meant that they could lose their jobs,” de la Ruiz said.
An official for the Edcouch-Elsa Independent School District told KUT they had not heard of any employees forcing workers to vote. And it’s district policy that once an employee is at work, they can’t leave to vote.
But the recent spike in voter assistance in Hidalgo County led District Attorney Guerra to ask his county commissioners for extra money. He wanted to hire additional investigators and convene a grand jury on illegal voter assistance. Commissioners voted to give him the funds.
“You needed assistance, come tell the grand jury why you needed assistance,” Guerra said. “You don’t have to tell us how you voted but I want to know why this person assisted you. And then we’re going to investigate the person who’s assisting.”
Guerra and others hope this investigation will end fraudulent voting, or at least lower its frequency. State Rep. Aaron Pena lives in Edinburg, in central Hidalgo. He says beyond having a clean election, limiting the perception of corruption in the valley should also help bring back voters who had given up.
“They just choose not to get involved,” Pena said. “They don’t want to be involved in the process.”
And that’s not just voters. Pena says the system keeps good candidates from running, because it can be too hard to win a race without using the politiquera system. Pena says he first ran for office to speak out against corruption. And after eight years as a Democrat, he jumped to the Republican Party because he says it was becoming too hard to run against and fight to end the politiqueras system.
“And as a Republican, I feel free to criticize what’s occurring,” Pena said. “I tried it as a Democrat and was denounced for talking about our dirty laundry in the Democratic Party.”
By switching parties, Pena was also able to hold on to more political power in a House that was more than two-thirds Republican. He used that power in an attempt to pass a bill changing voter assistance practices. The bill didn’t pass, and Pena was attacked by members of his former party for the effort. But now Guerra, a Democrat, has taken up the battle to limit illegal assisted voting. Pena is hopeful the district attorney’s efforts will be a first step at changing the system. But Guerra’s office is of course an elected position.
“And if you begin to attack the livelihood of this army of politiqueras and the machinery that comes out of the old boss system, you’re challenging the livelihoods of a lot of people. And you’re risking losing in your next election cycle.”
Pena says the system can change. He knows there are good people from both parties who want to see an end to the politiqueras. But he says getting it done will take more political courage then he’s ever seen.