Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – With just 45 days until voting starts, New Mexico is exploring how quickly it could move entirely to a vote-by-mail system for this year’s primary and general elections amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Legislative approval in a special session would almost certainly be required to abandon early and Election Day voting sites, election officials said, a potential barrier to launching a mail-in system before the June 2 primary.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has already informed legislative leaders that she expects to call a special session this year to consider budget adjustments, economic relief and other emergency measures. But it isn’t clear yet when it would start.
Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver – who oversees elections run by county clerks throughout New Mexico – said she expects, at the least, to encourage people to cast absentee ballots by mail for the primary. To that end, her office established an online portal Friday allowing voters to request absentee ballots about a month earlier than usual.
Unless there’s a change in the law, in-person and absentee voting for the June primary will begin May 5, or four weeks before Election Day.
But Toulouse Oliver said she and county clerks are exploring the possibility of legislative action to allow elections by mail – either for both of this year’s elections or just the general election.
“Even though it’s going to be challenging,” Toulouse Oliver told the Journal on Friday, “our election officials here in New Mexico are deeply committed to making sure we conduct a free and fair election, that it happens on the day it’s planned and that we have as minimal disruption for voters as possible.”
One challenge the state must confront: Most of the temporary workers who staff polling locations in New Mexico are 60 or older, putting them in the group most at risk of COVID-19, which can cause severe respiratory problems.
Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat and former Bernalillo County clerk, said state officials are examining ways to recruit a broader pool of people to staff the election, perhaps encouraging workers who lost jobs at restaurants, hotels and other businesses amid the pandemic.
County clerks will need election workers regardless of whether the elections are conducted by mail.
“Frankly, it seems like a good opportunity to help some folks out there who are going through really tough economic times,” Toulouse Oliver said.
Doña Ana County
Doña Ana County Clerk Amanda López Askin estimated that half to two-thirds of the county’s 275 election workers are 60 or older. Their health and safety, she said, is a priority as the primary election grows closer.
For now, López Askin said, she plans to strongly encourage absentee voting, which is permitted for any eligible voter upon request.
“We’re fortunate in New Mexico to have a no-fault absentee ballot process,” López Askin said.
New election rules in the state, she said, should also make it easier to handle a larger influx of absentee ballots than usual. Legislation approved last year allows counties that receive a certain number of absentee applications, López Askin said, to begin processing the ballots 14 days before the election, rather than just a few days before.
That will give workers a bigger head start on qualifying ballots – a process that involves checking signatures and handling other work that’s necessary before votes can be counted.
Moving entirely to mail-in ballots in New Mexico would require election officials to consider many potential challenges – including the security of the ballots themselves and getting them to and from voters, especially in remote areas.
Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said a mail-in election would require New Mexico to clean up its voter rolls. Many voters never update their registration when they move, he said, meaning ballots would be sent to the wrong address.
Before moving entirely to mail, Nibert said, the state might also want to consider delaying the primary election to ensure legislative leaders have enough time to properly evaluate any proposed changes. The primary, he said, is an ideal time to try out changes because of the reduced turnout.
“If we need to go this direction,” Nibert said, “we need to do it pretty quickly.”
There are plenty of other questions, big and small.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat and executive director of the Clerks Affiliate of the New Mexico Association of Counties, said the capacity of the postal system to handle an influx of ballots is one consideration. But election officials might also consider what kind of envelopes to use and whether it would be possible to avoid having voters seal their envelopes with a lick, he said.
The length of the outbreak – including any peaks and valleys in the spread of the disease – is another factor. No one knows what the landscape will look like this fall, much less in May and June.
Nonetheless, Ivey-Soto said, the United States has a long history of voting amid wars and other emergencies.
“Clearly,” he said, “we can have an election during a health emergency. We just need to make sure that we do it in a way that doesn’t propagate the virus.”
Toulouse Oliver said election officials are still researching their options, but at this point, they think it would take a change in the law to move to a 100% mail-in election.
In New Mexico, this year’s ballots will include races for president, an open U.S. Senate seat, all 112 state legislative seats, district attorneys and judicial officers.
As it stands now, on May 5 clerks will begin mailing absentee ballots to those who request them. That’s also the same day people can fill out and cast absentee ballots in person at their county clerk’s office.
Broader early voting begins May 16.