One in five people who cast early ballots in Hidalgo’s City Council election brought someone else into the voting booth for help, Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramon said Thursday. While Texas law allows voters to seek assistance in special circumstances, unusually high assistance rates often indicate political machines — and, critics say, voter coercion — at work. Of the 2,144 people who voted early in the Hidalgo election, 483 had help, Ramon said, about 22.5 percent of voters. “I think a majority of the people who are being assisted are school employees at Hidalgo ISD and Valley View ISD,” said Mayor John David Franz, who said he’d heard disturbing reports of able-bodied teachers asking for assistance. Members of the city’s longtime political machine, the Concerned Citizens of Hidalgo, attempt to intimidate voters by asking if they need assistance, Mayor Franz said. Anyone who refuses is “sending the signal you’re not on the team.” High rates of assisted voting and questions about the influence of political machines at the ballot box aren’t unusual in Hidalgo County.
In the March 2010 primary, a Monitor investigation found 12.7 percent of Hidalgo County voters received assistance. One candidate assisted 246 people at a single polling place. Records showed nearly all voter assistance occurred in the Democratic primary and largely was confined to poor areas. Hidalgo’s hotly contested election pits Mayor Franz’s upstart political committee, Community United, against the Concerned Citizens, which he headed until last year. A dispute between Mayor Franz and his uncle, Rudy Franz, splintered the group, which has controlled City Hall and both local school boards for decades. They now back rival slates for City Council.