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Early, absentee ballots match total cast in 2018 primary

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The coronavirus pandemic has not dampened New Mexico voter turnout for this year’s primary election – though it has changed how state residents vote.

As of Monday, more than 260,000 registered voters had cast ballots for today’s primary election. That’s about 26% of all eligible voters – and roughly the same amount who voted in the state’s 2018 primary.

Roughly 77% of those who have voted so far this year have done so via absentee ballots, with Democrats submitting more than twice as many absentee ballots as Republicans – 143,156 to 57,602.

But more Republicans than Democrats voted through in-person early voting, which ended Saturday.

Several county clerks said Monday that they’re using a 2019 change in state law that allows county clerks who mailed out 10,000 or more ballots to start qualifying ballots and feeding them into vote tabulators two weeks before Election Day.

But the deluge of absentee ballots could still lead to Election Night delays in some counties that have a large number of ballots turned in today, Tuesday.

“We’re always busy – but this is quadruple,” Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar said Monday. “It’s probably the most difficult election ever.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and other state officials have urged voters to use absentee voting this year instead of in-person voting to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

However, the state Supreme Court last month rejected a petition by most county clerks to conduct the primary as a mail-in election, ruling that state law did not provide for such an option.

Instead, all eligible primary voters – Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians for this year’s election cycle – were sent request forms that they could return to get an absentee ballot.

That message appears to have been heeded.

In Doña Ana County, more than 8,700 absentee ballots had been received by the County Clerk’s Office as of Monday afternoon, but an additional 9,500 or so absentee ballots that had been sent out after being requested had still not been turned in, Deputy Clerk Lindsey Bachman said.

“We’re doing everything we can to prepare for an influx of absentee ballots,” Bachman told the Journal.

Lea County Clerk Keith Manes said more than 2,700 absentee ballots had been received as of Monday. In the 2016 primary election, only 268 absentee ballots were sent in, he said.

“It’s been challenging, but we have good workers,” Manes said.

He also said the consolidation of Election Day polling places could make it easier to tally votes, although other county clerks warned that a surge of absentee ballots being delivered or turned in on Election Day could complicate matters.

“It’s been pretty hectic with the absentee ballots,” said San Miguel County Clerk Geraldine Gutierrez, who said about 4,500 absentee ballots in her county had been returned out of more than 5,600 that were requested.

In-person voting

While in-person voting on Election Day will still take place in most parts of New Mexico, it will not be offered on some Native American lands.

With tribal populations hit disproportionately hard by the coronavirus outbreak, at least seven pueblos – Acoma, Tesuque, Zia, Isleta, Cochiti, Picuris and Taos – will not have Election Day voting sites, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

However, members of those tribes can still vote on Tuesday at other, non-tribal polling places.

Other tribal groups, including chapters of the Navajo Nation, have worked to consolidate the number of polling places in an attempt to reduce person-to-person contact.

Elevated Election Day voting numbers – either via in-person voting or last-minute absentee ballots – could boost New Mexico’s overall turnout level to around that of the record-setting 2016 primary election, when 326,000 voters cast ballots due, at least in part, to interest in a heated Democratic presidential primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

That year’s overall turnout was 34% of those eligible to vote in the race, up from the average of 28% in presidential election year primaries in New Mexico since 1996.

Primary battles

This year’s primary election features hotly contested races in several of New Mexico’s congressional districts.

Seven Democrats and three Republicans are competing for nomination in the northern New Mexico-based 3rd Congressional District, as incumbent U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., is forgoing a reelection bid to run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Tom Udall, who is retiring.

In the southern New Mexico-based 2nd Congressional District, Republicans Claire Chase of Roswell, Yvette Herrell of Alamogordo and Chris Mathys of Las Cruces are vying for the opportunity to face off against Democratic incumbent Xochitl Torres Small in November.

Meanwhile, Luján is the lone Democrat running for the U.S. Senate seat, but three Republicans – Mark Ronchetti, Elisa Martinez and Gavin Clarkson – are facing off for the GOP nomination.

All 112 legislative seats are also up for election this year, and several moderate Senate Democrats are facing challenges from more progressive opponents.

That includes Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Ojo Caliente, who is trying to hold on to the seat he’s held since 2001 after being convicted last year of aggravated drunken driving charges. He’s running against fellow Democrat Leo Jaramillo of Española.

Some of the primary races – involving both Democrats and Republicans – have been marked by hard-hitting campaign mailers sent by outside groups, and at least one county clerk said some voters may be ready for the election cycle to be over.

“I think the negative campaigning is really getting on people’s nerves,” Manes said.

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