Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico election officials say they hope to inspire an unprecedented number of voters to cast absentee ballots in the June 2 primary election – a strategy intended to limit congestion at polling places amid the virus pandemic.
Their pitch: Mailing in an absentee ballot rather than showing up at the polls could save someone’s life.
The absentee campaign comes after the state Supreme Court rejected an emergency petition that sought to authorize closing most polling places and mailing ballots directly to all registered voters instead.
In a unanimous ruling Tuesday, the justices said state law prohibits such an order. But they directed county clerks to mail out absentee-ballot applications – a procedure the court said is permitted by law.
It’s an extra step, but any eligible voter who fills out the application should receive an absentee ballot they can mail back to their county clerk.
“What we need to do now is really make a plea to the public,” Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said in an interview Wednesday. “If you don’t have to physically go to a polling location, don’t do it. Vote safely from your home.”
Toulouse Oliver, who works with county clerks to run state elections, said New Mexico can tap into $4 million in federal funding to cover mailing costs and to equip election workers with protective gear.
The broad goal, she said, is to limit the number of people physically present inside early voting and Election Day polling places.
Toulouse Oliver said she will ask New Mexicans to leave in-person voting to people with no other option, such as voters with a disability or in need of a translator.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Lt. Gov. Howie Morales and other elected officials joined the push Wednesday for voters to embrace absentee voting.
“We know polling places will pose a difficult situation where people are congregating,” Lujan Grisham said in a public briefing Wednesday. “This is how the virus is transmitted – person to person, even with social distancing and do-it-yourself masks.”
County clerks can begin mailing absentee ballots on May 5 to voters who requested them, and limited sites for in-person voting will open that day, too. The broader field of early-voting sites are scheduled to open May 16.
Twenty-seven of the state’s 33 clerks and Toulouse Oliver had asked the Supreme Court for permission to close most in-person voting sites and move almost entirely to an election by mail. They said many poll workers are scared to work and that traditional voting sites – such as schools – are closed.
Most of the temporary workers who staff polling locations in New Mexico are over 60, putting them in the group most at risk of complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The Republican Party of New Mexico and other opponents argued that the direct mail-in proposal would illegally bypass the Legislature, which sets election procedures through state law.
The Supreme Court agreed that it couldn’t grant the emergency petition. But the justices took note of the public health emergency and ordered clerks to mail absentee-ballot applications to voters.
Election officials throughout the state are now preparing to comply with the order.
Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover said she hopes to recruit younger workers or perhaps other county employees to help staff the polling sites.
Voters and poll workers will comply with social distancing requirements, she said, so that polling locations can be operated as safely as possible to limit the spread of COVID-19.
In the meantime, Stover said, people can help by ensuring that the address on their voter registration is accurate and, if not, by updating it before May 5.
She is also encouraging voters to request an absentee ballot now rather than waiting for an application to arrive in the mail. Her office has already accepted about 10,000 absentee applications, she said.
That’s roughly as many absentee ballots as were returned in the county’s 2016 primary election.
The push for absentee voting “is our No. 1 battle cry,” Stover said, to protect public health and the right to vote.
“People really need to think about these absentee ballots,” she said. “It could save their life if they can vote from home.”
The June 2 primary will determine the major-party nominees for the U.S. Senate and House, the state Legislature and local offices.
Only Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians can vote in the primary. About 985,000 people are eligible vote in New Mexico’s primary.
Shifting to absentee voting will require a substantial change in voter behavior. In the 2016 primary, just 7% of voters cast absentee ballots, according to state canvassing documents.
“We have an election to administer,” said Daniel Ivey-Soto, a state senator and attorney who represented the 27 county clerks. “We’ll follow the order of the court and do the best we can under these very challenging circumstances.”