Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico voters are flooding their county clerks with requests to vote absentee as the state plunges into an unusual election season.
Through Monday afternoon, more than 91,000 voters had applied for absentee ballots, putting the state on track to blow past the 23,000 absentee votes in the primary election four years ago.
“It’s just off the charts,” Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, told the Journal on Monday.
Election officials throughout New Mexico are pushing absentee voting this year as a way to protect voters and poll workers amid the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed 156 people in the state and infected more than 4,000.
Tuesday, May 5, is the first day voters can cast ballots in the June 2 primary election. A limited number of in-person voting sites – such as the clerk’s annex at 1500 Lomas NW in Albuquerque – will open for voting.
County clerks on Tuesday will also begin mailing absentee ballots to people who have requested them.
Early voting at an expanded field of polling locations will start May 16.
Only Democrats, Libertarians and Republicans – New Mexico’s major political parties – may cast votes in the primary election. Tuesday is also the last day for voters to change their party affiliation.
Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover, a Democrat, said voter response to the absentee campaign has been incredible. Her office is set to begin mailing out about 40,000 absentee ballots – after having processed that many applications – to voters Tuesday.
Just a little over 10,000 voters cast absentee ballots in the 2016 primary election.
“The thing is, people have paid attention,” Stover said, “and they’re doing what is best for everyone.”
The start of voting comes after Toulouse Oliver, Stover and dozens of other election officials asked the Supreme Court to shift the June 2 primary largely to a mail-in election.
The court rejected the petition, finding that state election law doesn’t permit clerks to mail a ballot to every eligible voter. But the justices ordered election officials to mail each voter an application for an absentee ballot – a step permitted by law.
The Republican Party of New Mexico was among the opponents who argued against moving to an election by mail. The party said the application process for absentee voting ensures that the ballot will be sent to where the voter actually lives, not an outdated address.
Steve Pearce, chairman of the state Republican Party, said New Mexico’s election system is working as intended, allowing voters to decide how to cast their ballots.
“I think people can stay safe and vote in person or absentee – either one,” Pearce said. “It’s working under a pretty extreme situation.”
Marg Elliston, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, said her organization helped launch an advertising campaign to encourage voters to vote absentee. The digital ads, she said, are getting incredibly high “click-through rates” – demonstrating voter interest in absentee balloting.
Many voters, Elliston said, seem to be trying it out for the first time. Absentee ballots have some advantages, she said, such as allowing voters to take their time filling them out at home.
“We want people to be safe,” she said.
Voters who show up at early voting or election day polling places can expect some changes.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has closed nonessential businesses and banned public gatherings as part of a strategy to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Her administration issued an order last week to allow voting locations to operate, but with some restrictions.
Most polling places can operate at 20% of their occupancy limit, or with four voters in the room at any one time, whichever is greater.
Voters are to remain at least 6 feet apart, whether inside the polling location or waiting for their turn outside. The order also imposes requirements for disinfecting surfaces and hand-washing.
Some counties are also proposing to operate fewer polling places – a reflection of the expected difficulty recruiting poll workers and reduced demand for in-person voting.
In Bernalillo County, for example, Stover said she expects to operate 16 early voting sites – rather than the usual 20 – and 61 Election Day locations, down from 71.
The primary election will determine the major-party nominees for the U.S. Senate and House, legislative seats and a variety of local offices.
Among the key federal races are the Republican nomination for an open Senate seat, the Democratic nomination for the open seat in the 3rd Congressional District, and the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic incumbent Xochitl Torres Small in the 2nd Congressional District.