TYLER, TEXAS (KLTV) - Friends of a Smith County man who recently died from Legionnaires’ disease say he was denied the right to vote while in the hospital, despite being well-known for encouraging others to participate in elections. Meanwhile, the Smith County Elections Administrator disputes the claims saying, “no one was ever denied the right to vote.”
Nancy Nichols says her friend, Ruben Gutierrez, was full of life.
“I honestly believe Ruben never met anyone who wasn’t a friend," Nichols said. "And if you weren’t a friend right away, you would be.”
Nichols said one of the places Ruben was making friends this past September, was the East Texas State Fair in Tyler. He was there with the Smith County Democrats Club registering people to vote in the upcoming election.
“Which is what Ruben liked best," Nichols said. "Interacting with people and encouraging them to be involved”
While at the fair, Ruben and several others contracted Legionnaires’ disease. Nichols said the disease and it’s accompanying complications put her friend in the hospital two different times. And it was from his hospital bed that Ruben made a request.
“During that time he was talking with his friends and his family about the upcoming election," Nichols said. "And how he had been such an activist and so enthusiastic about everyone voting and he was afraid that he couldn’t vote. He wanted to be able to cast his ballot.”
A man who spent so much of his own time encouraging others to vote wanted to do just that.
“At that point we called down to the elections office and there was a volunteer down there who simply asked about the emergency ballot situation and was told no, he could not cast a ballot," Nichols said. “The volunteer was told, who relayed this message to me, that in order to be able to vote, Ruben would have had to be in the hospital the preceding Friday, but that didn’t make sense. You can’t plan emergencies.”
Nichols said she and others knew there had to be a way. She said a Texas Civil Rights Project attorney eventually called the Smith County Elections Administrator and referencing the Texas Election Code that allows those who are ill or disabled to receive an emergency ballot. But Nichols said those calls came too late.
“In the meantime, Ruben had a collapse and ended up on life support and then the rest of the story is really not a happy ending," Nichols said.
Before he was able to cast a ballot, Gutierrez died from complications related to Legionnaires’ disease.
In a phone call with KLTV, Elections Administrator Karen Nelson said, “at no time was anyone denied the right to vote.” She said an emergency ballot request was never received and her office was originally told that Gutierrez was “incapacitated” and his wife would be assisting.
“There was no denial,” Nelson said.
Meanwhile, friends say they just hope county officials take a close look at what happened.
“The good thing that is coming from this is our community leaders are looking at the situation for what it is and saying, 'we can do better.”