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Editorial: Mail-in balloting best option now for primary elections

As the coronavirus makes a June 2 primary look increasingly sickly, New Mexico leaders need to devise a workable statewide vote-by-mail system.

With early voting scheduled to begin in about seven weeks, staffing sites in every county – typically with many poll workers over 60 years old and most at risk for serious COVID-19 complications – seems irresponsible at best. Plus, there’s no confidence voters would even show up.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s statewide stay-at-home order for non-essential workers runs through April 10, and health experts predict the outbreak could continue through the summer. Several states have delayed their primaries, but there’s no guarantee those can take place safely later this spring or summer. Moreover, New Mexico is already among the last states to hold its primaries, on June 2. Libertarians’ national convention is in May. Democrats and Republicans are scheduled to choose their parties’ nominees for president and vice president in mid-July and late August, respectively. States that delay could find more voters’ choices moot come the national conventions.

A spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office told the Journal Editorial Board this week that Maggie Toulouse Oliver does not like the idea of setting precedent by delaying the June primary because election officials “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.” She’s right. New Mexicans have cast ballots in every presidential election since statehood. Our votes should matter. And while her office emphasizes absentee ballots, that puts the onus on each voter, who must request their individual ballot.

A better option? Have the June 2 primary via mail-in ballot. Officials can then decide on the general election, when hopefully more is known about the pandemic. (FYI, mail-in ballots should not be that hard – it’s 2020, and we cast ballots by mail and online for everything from company shareholder and school board seats to finalists on “The Voice.”)

Election officials say legislative approval would be required to abandon early and Election Day voting sites, but extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. The governor has announced plans to call a special session on budget adjustments, economic relief and other emergency measures as the price of oil plummets and her 2021 budget appears to be based on a fairy tale. Emergency mail-in balloting legislation is a no-brainer that could be passed then.

Unless there’s a change in the law, early voting in every county will begin May 16. Unless poll workers find a cache of masks and hand out toilet paper, it’s hard to fathom that being done safely or drawing any turnout.

Moving entirely to mail-in ballots will take considerable effort and presents many challenges, including the need to update voter rolls to ensure ballots are sent to the correct addresses and figuring out if there’s an alternative to licking return envelopes. But New Mexico voters deserve a decision soon on when and where their primary will be – president, an open U.S. Senate seat, all 112 state legislative slots, a Supreme Court seat, district attorneys and judicial officers are on the ballot. State leaders must start now to ensure the 2020 elections don’t break our spotless history of voting during emergencies and wars.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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