A primary election like no other

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

One thing is for sure: there’s never been another election year like 2020. But by the time it’s over, elections of the future may look more like this one than any other.

With the COVID-19 outbreak hitting the country in the midst of the primary election season, state election officials across the country scrambled to accommodate voting during a pandemic where social distancing has become part of the new normal.

Vanessa Sandoval gives two thumbs up as her ballot disappeared into the voting machine during early voting held in the parking garage at Santa Fe County’s new administration building on Catron Street last week. Miguel Rodriguez, left, with the Santa Fe County Clerk’s Office, helps Sandoval and Leroy Trujillo, right, cast their ballots. Early voting was held in the parking garage due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

While New Mexico has been scrutinized for holding its primary election late in the season, the timing may have actually benefitted election officials here, allowing them more time to prepare for the June 2 primary election.

“Before even the first cases of COVID-19 were in New Mexico, our office, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and county clerks around the state started thinking about what an election would look like,” Alex Curtas, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office said. “We knew there had to be some alterations made in order to preserve public health. We wanted to reduce in-person voting to try to eliminate the spread (of the virus).”

Absentee voting

Besides obvious precautionary measures to wipe down voting stations, outfit poll workers with masks and maintain social distancing while lining up to vote on Election Day, county clerks have taken steps to reduce the number of polling stations, and encouraged early and absentee voting.

An effort by 27 of the state’s 33 county clerks to hold a mail-in election was struck down by the state Supreme Court, which decided it did not have the constitutional authority to determine how elections were to be conducted; that power lies with the Legislature. However, the court ruled that while county clerks could not send ballots directly to registered voters in each major party, they could send them the materials needed to request an absentee ballot.

“When the ruling came down, it basically referred us back to conducting a regular election, so this year is not so much different than elections of the past,” said Curtas. “But we are encouraging absentee voting.”

And that’s what makes this year unlike any other election year. Curtas said it’s possible there will be more absentee ballots cast in the primary election than ballots at polling places.

The message hasn’t just been “get out and vote.” It’s been “stay home and vote, and do it before Election Day,” Curtas said.

“And voters have responded well, and taken our encouragement and the encouragement of county officials, candidates and the parties,” Curtas added. “We’ve seen way more absentee (ballot) requests and we’ve already received back more absentee ballots than we’ve ever seen before.”

Curtas said that, statewide, nearly 115,000 absentee votes had been returned through Tuesday, a week before Election Day. By comparison, there were fewer than 25,000 absentee votes during the 2016 primary election.

Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar said on Thursday her office has been overwhelmed with absentee ballot requests and phone calls in the weeks leading up to the election. She said they’ve received nearly 37,000 absentee ballot requests. More than 16,000 had been logged in as returned, leaving at least 20,000 yet to be returned or processed.

“We’re doing a lot of the same things,” Salazar said, “but the difference is it has been quadruple the work.”

The deadline to return absentee ballots by mail has passed. Envelops needed to be postmarked by Friday. But Salazar said, “… that’s due to a law passed last year that allows voters to deliver their absentee ballots to the Clerk’s Office or a voter convenience center between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Election Day instead of mailing it in.”

“That’s been a true benefit,” she said of the law that allows absentee ballots to be returned in person. “Because people want to vote.”

She added that it’s important for voters to fill out the entire ballot and sign it, lest their vote not be counted.

A long night

How all those absentee ballots affect getting final results on election night is unknown. Curtas said he didn’t expect problems, “but there is a possibility that absentee ballots might be delayed. There’s no obligation that people have to know the outcome of every race on election night.”

Salazar conceded that “there’s a very high possibility” that all the votes won’t be counted before midnight on Tuesday and results won’t be known until the next morning.

“What’s the biggest unknown is what will happen with all these mail-in ballots that we have to enter and count,” she said. “We’re going to try as we always do to get the results in. Whatever we have that night will be the unofficial results.”

Salazar said county clerks have 10 hours after polls close to get those unofficial results to the Secretary of State’s office, meaning 5 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Asked if this year’s general election will lead to changes in how elections are handled in the future, Salazar said it likely will.

“I think this whole pandemic, with mail-in ballots and absentee ballots, there will have to be changes. We will have to create or add to it to improve the process,” she said.

She also said she wouldn’t be surprised to see lawsuits filed by voters who requested an absentee ballot and didn’t get it on time, which could result in changes to election laws.

“When this is over, we’re all going to have to take a look at this and decide what we need to do to make changes to improve the process,” she said.

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