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Late delivery of NM mail ballots feared

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Carol Bush requested an absentee ballot nearly three weeks ago and says she never got it.

One of her sons, Gary, requested his more than a week ago and hopes it arrives Thursday.

They are among the New Mexicans increasingly worried about receiving or returning their ballots – or both – in time to participate in the June 2 primary election.

“I was expecting mine today, and I have not received it,” Gary Bush, a teaching laboratory supervisor at the University of New Mexico’s chemistry department, said Wednesday. “We’re getting to crunch time.”

Election officials throughout the state say they’ve heard similar complaints and fears as thousands of new voters turn to absentee balloting as a way to vote safely from home and avoid the risk of COVID-19.

In Bernalillo County alone, nearly 42,000 people have voted absentee – four times as many as in the 2016 primary election. And those are just the ballots that have been returned.

The County Clerk’s Office has mailed out well over 110,000 absentee ballots.

Under state law, the ballots must be returned to election officials by 7 p.m. Tuesday to count.

Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover said she understands the worries of some voters – that their ballots won’t make it back in time.

“We have the same anxiety,” Stover said Wednesday. “I think it’s the sheer volume of what’s happened. I don’t think people realized that there would be such a response to the opportunity to vote absentee.”

Election officials throughout New Mexico have been pushing for voters to cast absentee ballots this year – a process intended to promote safety by limiting the transmission of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus.

But the effort has put an extra burden on the mail system.

In addition to the ballots themselves, absentee applications are also moving through the mail. Voters must first apply for a ballot – verifying their address – before election officials mail a ballot to them.

After a legal clash over election procedures, the state Supreme Court earlier this year ordered New Mexico county clerks to mail applications to eligible voters.

“Needless to say, this is a historically challenging moment for clerks’ offices, the vendors that support us, and our regional USPS system,” Doña Ana County’s chief deputy clerk, Lindsey Bachman, said Wednesday.

Many voters, she said, are just now sending in their applications.

Stover put it this way: “There are thousands of these ballots going out and coming back.”

No flexibility under law

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a Democratic candidate for the Senate, said he’s heard not only of delays but also of “ballots that are missing altogether.”

In a written statement, he asked Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver to accept ballots as long as they’re postmarked by June 2.

A spokesman for Toulouse Oliver said state law doesn’t offer that flexibility. Ballots must be returned by 7 p.m. election night to count.

As for missing ballots, Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar said election officials discovered a discrepancy in a database connection between a vendor that mails out ballots and the state’s voter registration system, which initially kept residents of a retirement community from getting their ballots.

But her staff is following up with the voters, she said, and most have since received their ballots.

About 50 people were initially affected in one precinct, Salazar said.

Other options available

Voters worried about the mail have some options.

People who have filled out their absentee ballot – but not yet mailed it – can deliver it in person to any early voting location or the Clerk’s Office. They can also take it to a polling place on Election Day.

An immediate family member or caregiver of the voter can also deliver the ballot.

People who requested a ballot but didn’t receive one have the option of voting in person. They can get a replacement ballot and vote at a polling location.

Election officials say there are protections to prohibit voting twice. Poll workers have access to a database showing whether someone has already returned an absentee ballot.

In some cases, voters might be asked to use a provisional ballot in person, meaning it won’t be counted until election workers determine they didn’t already vote.

Still, there are fears about ballots ending up lost in the mail.

Daniel Ivey-Soto, a Democratic state senator and lawyer who works for county clerks, said New Mexico’s mail is often routed through El Paso or Lubbock, Texas, even if it’s sent from one in-state address to another.

Clerks, Ivey-Soto said, have repeatedly raised concerns about delivery delays this year. But every year, Ivey-Soto said, there’s the occasional ballot that isn’t counted because it arrives after Election Day.

“It’s a reality,” Ivey-Soto said. “There will be more this year.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service said Wednesday that the agency “is committed to delivering Election Mail in a timely manner.”

Bush, the absentee voter from Albuquerque, said he and his mom are hoping to receive their ballots Thursday. Election workers at the Clerk’s Office, he said, have been in touch and sent his mother a new ballot.

But Bush said he still expects to rely on the U.S. mail getting the ballot back to the clerk in time.

His mom – who’s 84 – doesn’t drive, he said, and he’s not sure he will have time to hand-deliver a ballot.


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