Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
LAS CRUCES – Democrat Xochitl Torres Small is the new projected winner over Republican Yvette Herrell in the hotly contested race for southern New Mexico’s congressional seat following a count of 8,000 absentee ballots in Doña Ana County on Wednesday. She is the first woman and Latina to represent the state’s second Congressional District. Torres Small’s apparent victory means Democrats make up New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation – both senators and all three members of the U.S. House.
The absentee ballots were not included in the election night returns that showed Herrell with a lead of 1,972 votes over Torres Small out of the 186,000 votes counted at that point. At least one national news network and the Journal along with local pollsters called the race at that time, not aware that the absentee ballots had not been counted.
Results of the hard-fought race were then hanging in the balance until the envelopes containing all the absentee ballots cast in Doña Ana County could be opened and counted.
The unofficial totals as of late Wednesday, according to the secretary of state, gave Torres Small 99,440 votes and Herrell 96,712 votes.
“The votes have been counted and the voices of the people in New Mexico’s second Congressional District have been heard,” said Torres Small at an impromptu news conference after the count to applause and cheers from her supporters. “I am so honored to represent this incredible district, this enormous district, this district with people from all walks of life who have shown up in this moment.”
Torres Small credited a higher than usual voter turnout in the district for her victory. “This place where we have seen people who had never voted before knocking on each others’ doors talking about the importance of getting involved and making the government work for them,” she said her voice cracking as she became emotional about first-time voters’ participation.
Many of those voters live in Doña Ana County, including Torres Small’s hometown, Las Cruces, a Democratic stronghold, gave her the additional votes she needed to win the election.
She thanked her supporters and her husband, state Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, and the couple kissed and embraced after the press conference. Torres Small, a water rights lawyer from Las Cruces and first-time candidate faced a tough competitor in Herrell, a state representative from Alamogordo who had name recognition in a the reliably Republican district. Republicans have held the seat for all but two years since 1981.
However, Herrell’s campaign has not conceded.
“Last night, we heard from Xochitl Torres Small that it was extremely important that every vote be counted,” Rob Burgess, senior adviser to the Herrell campaign, said in a news release Wednesday night. “This campaign believes that should be the case and we look forward to seeing the results from all provisional ballots throughout the district.”
On election night when she was the projected winner, Herrell said New Mexicans were “voting for experience and the person who would best represent their values in Washington.” Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the new tally showing Torres Small garnered more votes.
About 100 ballots remain to be tallied, along with about 1,000 provisional ballots, Doña Ana County Clerk Amanda Lopez Askin said Wednesday.
The final absentee vote count released by county election officials showed Torres Small received 6,411 of the votes, compared with Herrell’s 1,847 absentee votes – pushing her past Herrell. The votes were not counted earlier because the seven-person absentee voter board appointed to count the ballots was overwhelmed by the high number cast and by midnight Election Day had counted only about half, Lopez Askin said.
“I had to look at them (late Tuesday) and say, ‘They’re exhausted,'” Lopez Askin said. “Their hands were swollen from opening ballots. They had been here all day.”
Lopez Askin said she sought advice from the Secretary of State’s Office about resuming the count Wednesday morning.
In many other counties statewide, the early in-person and absentee votes are the first counted and sometimes posted soon after the polls close on Election Day.
Lopez Askin said the number of absentee votes were higher than expected, and the poll workers, even though experienced, simply could not keep up.
But it wasn’t until the Secretary of State’s Office announced shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday that it became clear the earlier result totals did not include thousands of absentee ballots.
That office sent out a news release that 4,000 absentee ballots cast in Doña Ana County still had to be counted. And about 30 minutes later, a second news release was sent revealing that an additional 4,000 absentee ballots had been counted but not yet added to the vote tally.
“We can’t give partial results from any of our sites. They have to all be in and then it’s closed. And so we have to literally wait until we are done with every single one,” Lopez Askin said.
The Secretary of State’s Office said the “tabulator machine” assigned for absentee votes in Doña Ana County had to include all the ballots rather than a portion or that machine would have to be “recertified” when the remaining ballots were added to the count.
The number of absentee ballots cast in Doña Ana County for this midterm election “quadrupled” compared to one in 2014, according to the county clerk.
The bipartisan board got help counting the ballots Wednesday from an additional 10 members, split between Republican and Democratic party members, who were deputized by the county clerk.
“It serves two purposes: It creates that transparency and partnership that’s important in fair elections,” Lopez Askin said. There are also two “challengers,” one from each party, on site as the ballots were counted.
“It’s fascinating to watch in action,” said state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, a “challenger” for the Democratic Party in Las Cruces. He and Las Cruces Republican Party Chair Betty Bishop were on hand during the count of ballots held in a small warehouse owned by the county.
“There are moments when ballots are in question as to whether they will be disqualified and I’m given an opportunity to voice a concern one way or another,” Steinborn said.
Among the problems were voters who did not sign the envelope that holds their ballot.
“Some mistakes, the law allows to be rectified. Some of them can’t. And sometimes as I’m seeing there are judgment calls. It’s really important I believe to make sure people’s voices are heard,” Steinborn said.
In the votes tallied on election night, Torres Small had a decisive lead over Herrell in Doña Ana County – 62 percent to 38 percent. But Herrell led in the rural counties outside Doña Ana.
Despite some calling the race in Herrell’s favor, Torres Small declined to concede Tuesday.
“We’ve seen people waiting in lines for a long time to make sure their voice is heard and it is just not right at this time to cut that short. That is why we are waiting until every single person’s voice is heard. Because people worked hard,” said Torres Small on election night.
During the campaign she traveled the enormous district that covers the southern half of the state reaching out to the large number of independent voters and moderate Republicans urging them to choose the person over the party.
Torres Small said her priorities are improving access to affordable health care especially in rural areas, protecting water and public lands and creating jobs for New Mexicans. “We said every vote would count and today the hard work, persistence and dedication of our people-powered campaign achieved what so many said was impossible,” said Torres Small. The race attracted national attention and big money from both Democrats and Republicans in the fight to control Congress.