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Dispute flares as vote results are certified

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s midterm election results were certified Tuesday, but not before a dispute over the legality of online absentee ballots applications roiled a meeting of the State Canvassing Board and prompted questions from Gov. Susana Martinez about whether Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver had overstepped her legal authority.

 Gov. Susana Martinez

Gov. Susana Martinez

While the secretary of state, a Democrat, staunchly defended the program’s legal moorings and the integrity of this year’s general election results, Martinez, a Republican, and others suggested the online absentee ballot requests could open the door to voter fraud.

“This is a statutory process, and the statute wasn’t followed,” Pat Rogers, an Albuquerque lawyer, said during Tuesday’s meeting at the state Capitol.

Absentee ballots played a key role in determining the outcome of at least one contest this month – New Mexico’s hotly contested 2nd Congressional District race.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

Democrat Xochitl Torres Small defeated Republican Yvette Herrell by 3,722 votes in a race in which nearly 200,000 ballots were cast, according to final results certified Tuesday by the Canvassing Board.

But Torres Small had been trailing in the race until more than 8,000 absentee ballots cast in Doña Ana County – more than double the amount cast in previous years – were added to the vote tally and vaulted her into the lead.

Although she has not provided any evidence of wrongdoing, Herrell has filed a lawsuit seeking to impound the absentee ballots, and her attorney said in a letter to the secretary of state this week that absentee voting is “uniquely susceptible” to irregularities.

However, the Secretary of State’s Office said 968 absentee ballots were requested online in Doña Ana County and 2,823 such ballots were requested across the entire district. That’s significant, because even if all those ballots were invalidated, the election results would not change.

Statewide, 19,329 absentee ballots were requested online for this year’s general election and 16,536 of those ballots were ultimately returned.

Meanwhile, the dispute over the legality of the online ballot request program hinges on a requirement in state law that voters sign the application and provide other identifying information.

The current online application process, authorized in 2017, does not require a voter’s signature, but the Secretary of State’s Office maintains that’s legal because only voters who have already registered to vote – and provided a signature at that time – are eligible to participate.

“We believe this has been a legal and successful program that has allowed 20,000 New Mexicans to vote,” Deputy Secretary of State John Blair said Tuesday.

Democrats posted big wins up and down the New Mexico ballot on Election Day, including all three congressional races and Michelle Lujan Grisham’s victory over Republican Steve Pearce in an open race for governor. Martinez was barred from seeking election to a third consecutive term and will step down at the end of the year.

Democrats will also expand their majority over Republicans in the state House, as they are on track to pick up eight seats in the 70-member chamber and enter next year’s 60-day session with a 46-24 advantage.

The State Canvassing Board did order automatic recounts Tuesday in two state House races – House Districts 22 and 63 – in which the final margin separating the two candidates is less than 1 percentage point.

Rep. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, was up by 140 votes over Democrat Jessica Velasquez of Sandia Park in the House District 22 contest, while Republican Martin Zamora of Clovis had a 27-vote edge over incumbent Rep. George Dodge, D-Santa Rosa, in the House District 63 race.

An automatic recount in a third legislative race, the Albuquerque-based House District 20 contest between Democrat Abbas Akhil and incumbent Republican Jim Dines, is expected to be ordered on Friday. The Canvassing Board did not order it Tuesday because it had not received final county canvass results in time to include it on its agenda.

Final voter turnout for the Nov. 6 general election was 701,654. That’s roughly 55.6 percent of all registered New Mexico voters and represents a higher turnout than in 2010 or 2014, the most recent previous nonpresidential election years.

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