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High court sets April 14 hearing on mail election

The New Mexico Supreme Court building in Santa Fe.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The state Supreme Court wants to hear arguments on the legality of New Mexico legislators convening electronically – rather than in person – for a special session amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The justices requested the information as they consider an emergency petition filed by 27 county clerks who want to shift the June 2 primary to an election by mail.

The Supreme Court set an April 14 hearing on the issue.

The court orders come after the state Republican Party and 29 legislators asked the justices Tuesday to reject the emergency petition, describing it as an improper push by state election officials to bypass the Legislature and craft a new election scheme, even with reasonable alternatives available to safeguard public health.

The Republicans said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham could call a special session if changing the election code is necessary to protect public health.

And without a session, the GOP argued, New Mexico could simply encourage voters to cast absentee ballots – a well-trusted system, they said, that provides better safeguards against fraudulent voting.

“This is not a partisan issue, but an election law issue,” Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said in a written statement. “We cannot have the integrity of New Mexico’s elections tainted or stolen because of lack of security in the mail ballot process.”

In an Albuquerque school election held by mail last year, the Republicans said, more than 50,000 ballots were returned as undeliverable.

The legal dispute centers on a petition filed Monday by 27 county clerks – with agreement from Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat – seeking permission from the Supreme Court to conduct the June 2 primary by mail. There would still be limited sites for people to drop off ballots or vote in person if absolutely necessary.

The 27 clerks say the change would save lives by helping limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. Election workers are scared to work, the clerks said, and traditional polling sites in schools and other locations are closed.

A special session isn’t an option, the clerks argue, because state health officials fear that calling lawmakers to the Capitol would accelerate the spread of the virus.

Legislative staff and Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office, meanwhile, have been examining the legality of convening an online special session, but they haven’t released any findings yet.

The Supreme Court asked the parties in the election case to address whether the state Constitution, laws and legislative rules would permit the Legislature to meet remotely. The justices also asked the Governor’s Office and others to weigh in on the case.

Two justices – Shannon Bacon and David Thomson, both of whom are on the ballot this year – recused themselves from the litigation. The Supreme Court designated retired justices Richard Bosson and Edward Chávez as replacements.

Backing the motion against the mail election are the Republican Party of New Mexico, 29 legislators and the clerks of Chaves, Curry, Lea, Lincoln, Roosevelt and San Juan counties, all Republicans.

On the other side are the remaining 27 clerks, most Democrats but also five Republicans.

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