Friends of the late Ruben Gutierrez believe he died as a result of trying to sign people up to vote. He was then denied his right to vote while on his death bed and died shortly after the election.

Gutierrez’s friends say he contracted Legionnaires’ disease while he was trying to sign people up to vote at the East Texas State Fair Sept. 20-29. Knowing he was sick and would be hospitalized for Legionnaires’ disease through the election, Gutierrez requested an emergency ballot.

He was denied.

The general election was Nov. 5. Friends said Gutierrez’s health took a turn for the worse on Nov. 1 and he died on Nov. 8.

It was a relatively short meeting for the Smith County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, but friends of Gutierrez attended to voice their displeasure over the voting situation. They were wearing and passing out lapel pins with Gutierrez’s photo, reading “WWRD?” for “What Would Ruben Do?”

Smith County Democratic Club President Nancy Nichols wanted answers as to why her friend was unable to vote before he died. She said she was addressing the court this week because she was unable to last week as she was volunteering at a polling location.

Gutierrez, a Democratic precinct chair, likely would have been working at a polling station last week, had he not been readmitted to the hospital.

Family members said Gutierrez was registering voters and working the Democratic Party booth daily at the East Texas State Fair in September, where it is believed he contracted Legionnaires’ disease. After being released from the hospital in mid-October, an infection related to the antibiotics used to treat the Legionnaire’s disease landed him back in the hospital. It was at this point that Nichols said friends tried to obtain an emergency paper ballot for him under Texas Election Code 102.002, which states that an ill or disabled person can receive a ballot delivered to them in person.

Nichols said a representative requested a ballot for Gutierrez on Friday, Nov. 1, but was denied. Friends then called the Texas Civil Rights Project and another voter’s rights organization, Election Protection, but by the time the situation was resolved hours later, Gutierrez had fallen into critical condition. He never recovered.

“The reason why I am bringing this to your attention is voter suppression. Ruben was not allowed to vote and he will never vote again,” Nichols said when addr

“Our election administration office appears to argue reasons why people should not vote rather than help citizens with their right to vote. The main job of election administration is to ensure that qualified voters are allowed the opportunity to vote.”

Smith County Elections Administrator Karen Nelson disputes that account in an email to the Tyler Morning Telegraph.

“Mr. Gutierrez would have needed to have a representative present in our office with the ‘Application for Emergency Early Voting Ballot Due to Sickness or Physical Disability,’ at which time an emergency ballot would have been issued,” Nelson wrote. “There was no such application received by the Smith County Elections Office. There was only ‘a friend of a friend’ who asked about the steps to obtain one. I called the legal division of the secretary of state to get the specific guidelines for this process.”

Nelson also said 37 provisional ballots were cast, and no emergency ballots were granted for the Nov. 5 election.

Nichols reiterated a call made last week by herself and other community leaders, across the political spectrum, to have the Nov. 5 election reviewed due to concerns of how polling location issues were handled.

Nichols said that after the Tuesday meeting at least one county commissioner assured her they would look into the matter.

The final, official results of the election will be canvassed on Monday.

Issues with long lines, frustrated voters and voting machines crashing came to a head last week, drawing bipartisan backlash. County Judge Nathaniel Moran previously acknowledged the election was not up to the their standards and the county would work to ensure a repeat does not happen in March for local, state and national primary contests.

Cory is a multimedia journalist and member of the Education Writers Association, Criminal Justice Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He has appeared on Crime Watch Daily and Grave Mysteries on Investigation Discovery.

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