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Rio Arriba vote stands despite ripped-up ballots

SANTA FE – Whether ripped-up paper ballots spoiled the results of the Democratic primary vote for Rio Arriba County’s District 1 County Commission seat was debated in a Santa Fe courtroom Thursday

After a hearing that lasted more than five hours, state District Judge Jason Lidyard ruled that James Martinez, who had a four-vote margin in returns from June 5, was still the winner.

Lidyard decided that a voting machine’s’ digital scans of the ballots, as fed into the machines and before the ballots were torn up, were sufficient to verify the votes of the 55 people who cast ballots in the District 1 race at the Ojo Sarco polling place.

The second-place finisher, former County Commissioner Elias Coriz, had requested the recount. Lidyard decision to maintain the previous tally elicited cheers from several Martinez supporters in the courtroom.

“I just want to thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ for the victory,” said Martinez, an associate pastor at Española’s Rock Christian Fellowship and a contracted speech therapist at local schools. The primary was his first time running for office.

According to the Secretary of State’s Office results from June 5, Coriz had 859 votes and Martinez 863, ahead of two other candidates.

After Coriz filed for the recount, it was discovered that poll workers in Ojo Sarco had ripped up both used and unused paper ballots after electronic tabulations were printed from the voting machine.

Derrick Rodriguez, the polling place’s presiding judge, told Lidyard that he tore up the ballots after he made a call with the County Clerk’s Office for instructions. He said he and other poll workers did not feel that their binder of election day instructions was clear about what to do with the paper ballots after the electronic tabulation.

“The instruction I got was to rip them,” he said of what happened in the call to the clerk’s office. Rodriguez told Lidyard he did not remember the name of the person he spoke to.

Rodriguez had acted as a polling place worker in years prior. All the county’s polling workers also attend classes with instructions on what to do on election day.

After the call, the three other poll workers tore up the ballots and put them in a black plastic bag that comes with election day materials that are to be given back to the County Clerk’s Office. Michele Johnson, the office’s Bureau of Elections chief, testified that the correct policy for used paper ballots is to place them in a locked bin for use in case of a recount and that the unused ballots are supposed to go in the plastic bag. She described the digital scans produced by the voting machines as the ballots are entered as “backup.”

Though Rodriguez and two other poll workers — John Sanchez and Anita Sanchez — said during the hearing that they only tore up the ballots into halves and quarters, Lidyard asserted that all of the ballots were torn into so many pieces that “there was no ability to reconstruct them in any recognizable way.”

Because of that, he said the paper ballots had lost their “virtue” for a recount and that the results as counted should stand. The judge said the number of digital images produced by the voting machines matched the number of voter permit slips and signatures and there was no indication that the voting machine;s memory card was interfered with.

Scott Fuqua, Coriz’ attorney, argued that all of the ballots cast in the commission race in the Ojo Sarco precinct should be tossed out, which would have given Coriz the edge over Martinez 846-841.

He said that New Mexico’s election law calls for the original ballots to be used for recounts, not digital records. He also said it’s impossible to verify the accuracy of the machine’s scans without the paper ballots themselves.

“This isn’t about fraud, it’s about accuracy,” said Fuqua. He said the rest of the recount would only have changed the tally by possibly one vote. There is no Republican candidate.

Martinez’ lawyer, Kate Girard, contended there was no reason the votes could not be counted. “The ballot is not the vote, the ballot is evidence of the voter’s intent,” said Girard.

After the hearing, Coriz said he had congratulated Martinez and conceded the election. However, he said he still thinks the election code statute on recounts “says differently” than what was decided.