Velia Salinas holds the title of longest-tenured election judge at the Bexar County Elections Department. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Velia Salinas keeps busy. She hasn’t had a 9-to-5 job in decades, but during the coronavirus pandemic, she has been sewing cloth face masks for “anyone who wants them” and taking care of her three dogs, two cats, and two birds.

“I enjoy them,” she said. “And they’re spoiled. I came to the kitchen to use the phone, and they’re around me right now.” 

At 95, Salinas is the longest-tenured election judge at the Bexar County Elections Department. She worked her first election in 1948, long before election judges and clerks were paid and when votes were cast by punching holes into paper. But this year, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen told Salinas that she couldn’t work the July primary runoff election because the coronavirus pandemic made the risk to her health too high.

“I told Jacque … I’m 100 percent [healthy] and I’m 100 percent bored,” Salinas said, laughing.

Callanen said Salinas originally fought the directive, but Callanen refused to send her oldest election judge to the polls at a time when positive cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations are surging locally.

“I said, ‘Velia, I’m not putting you out there,’” Callanen said. “I said, ‘You can’t, you can’t.’ And she got mad at me. We’ll make up.”

Ultimately, it took both of Salinas’ physician sons to persuade her to stay home for her safety. One of them lives in San Antonio and visits her regularly.

“I don’t go out the house,” she said. “My son wouldn’t allow it.”

Increasing the risk to election workers’ health is Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to exempt polling locations from a statewide mask mandate. The governor said he did so for “constitutional purposes.” But about 60 percent of Bexar County’s election officials are over the age of 65, and the average age is 72, according to Callanen. This puts most of the judges and clerks staffing voting locations at a higher risk of the novel coronavirus.

In recent years, Salinas regularly has served as the head election judge at the John Igo Library polling location in Northwest San Antonio, where she runs a tight ship, Callanen said. During a typical election, Salinas helps voters sign in and gives them instructions on how to cast their ballots.

“I go where they need me,” Salinas said. “I used to work all over the city with the other [elections] administrator, but Jacque just gave me one place, which I like.”

Salinas, who typically works through early voting and on election day, is no stranger to hard work . After she graduated from high school, she worked as an airplane mechanic for 35 years at Kelly Air Force Base. She transitioned into retail after a friend offered her a job at Dillard’s, where she sold couture dresses for 20 years.

“That’s about it,” she said. “I worked all my life, and I’m still working for Jacque.”

Her other job these days, she said, is making masks. 

“I’ve got a new job, but for free,” Salinas said. “I buy the material and make them. I’m a person that can’t stop working. If I live to be 100, I guess I’ll be working still.”

On Tuesday, Salinas will cast her ballot in person – although she’s old enough to request a mail-in-ballot – and then return home with her daughter Carla Salinas, who lives with her in their Oak Hills neighborhood. Her mother is “very outgoing and knows no strangers,” Carla Salinas said. On Saturday, the elder Salinas attempted to give this reporter a hug but ended up accepting an “air hug” from 10 feet away.

“And that’s exactly why she doesn’t do elections” during the pandemic, said her daughter, who worried that her mother might not be able to refrain from greeting acquaintances in a similar fashion.

Instead of helping people vote on Tuesday night, Salinas will be sewing masks and watching over her motley crew of pets. She ticked off each of her beloved animals – two schnauzers named Barkley and Jax, a springer spaniel named Abby, two cats named Smokey and Sofie, a green macaw named Major, and a gray cockatiel named Maverick. Maverick flew into her garage when Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, Salinas said. She reported him to her vet but no one stepped up to claim him, so she adopted him as her own.

“If they weren’t here, I don’t know what I’d be doing,” she said.

Salinas said out of all the things she will miss on election day, she will miss seeing the voters the most. Voters often use her as a sounding board, telling her about their problems, she said.

“I’ll listen to them, and they appreciate it,” she said. “Like I was telling Jacque – the old people, they’d rather come out and vote than vote by mail because they don’t have no one to talk to at home. So when they come to vote, it’s like a party.”

“I know they’re probably missing me.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.