Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
It was an election like no other.
In the midst of social unrest and a pandemic that prompted social distancing measures and face masks at the polls, New Mexico voter turnout was strong for Tuesday’s 2020 primary election – but most voters chose not to cast their ballots in person.
And that led to major headaches for ballot counting, according to Alex Curtas, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office. He said at midnight that Santa Fe, Bernalillo and six other counties may be waiting a while on results.
Of the more than 400,000 votes cast, the state had received more than 250,000 absentee ballots, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Some of those ballots were mailed in, and others were hand-delivered by voters to polling sites on Tuesday. That compares to about 23,000 absentee ballots in the 2016 primary.
Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover announced that she was sending her absentee board members home at 11 p.m., and they would return to finish the count in the morning.
“Our absentee board started registering absentee ballots at 7 a.m. this morning. That was over 15 hours ago,” Stover said. “Another time I’ll tell you the story of this tireless and dedicated absentee board. But for now, suffice it to say that at 11 p.m., I’m sending them home to get some sleep.”
The clerk’s office could not say how many still needed to be counted. The absentee board had registered over 98,000 absentee ballots with nearly 15,000 on Tuesday.
At 10:45 p.m., Santa Fe County results had just started to trickle in. Santa Fe County presiding judge Paul D’Arcy said he and his staff were overwhelmed by the number of absentee ballots, which slowed the whole process. More than 39,000 ballots had been mailed in. He said a lack of staffing was also an issue, with far fewer workers than usual. County Clerk Geraldine Salazar said many who were at higher COVID-19 risk chose not to work this election.
Doña Ana, McKinley, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, Taos and Valencia counties were also waiting on results early Wednesday morning, Curtas said.
Statewide, the more than 400,000 people – including 244,000 Democrats and 157,000 Republicans – who cast ballots far exceeded the 2016 primary when 328,000 voters cast ballots.
While most chose not to vote in person, some did show up at the polls Tuesday.
Signs reminded people to practice social distancing while standing in line and to wear face masks. In addition, most election sites had extra face masks on hand for people who may have forgotten one.
Overall turnout was “surprisingly good, considering this is a closed primary and it’s during a pandemic,” Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover said. “We asked the public to help us by voting absentee, and 99% of these people have never voted absentee before.”
Party leaders welcomed the high voter turnout, suggesting it showed momentum for their candidates. On the presidential ticket, at 11 p.m. Democrat Joe Biden had about 112,000 votes and Republican Donald Trump about 108,000, according to unofficial results.
“We’re really turning people out in the face of adversity right now. With the pandemic and unrest and the sadness in our world. We’ve lost so many people to the virus and we have a lot of things to make right in our country,” said Marg Elliston, the chairwoman of the New Mexico Democratic Party. “We’ve been trying a lot of different strategies to get people to vote and it’s working, and we’re excited about that.”
New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said in-person voting on Tuesday was higher than had been expected. He said many voters may have requested absentee ballots but then decided to vote in person to avoid the risk of having their ballot delivered by mail after the Tuesday deadline.
“I think people just wanted to vote and see their votes cast,” Pearce said.
He also said two factors were prompting Republicans to vote in high numbers – frustration with the Democratic-controlled Legislature and support for Trump, who was running unopposed for the GOP nomination.
“People are just wanting to go out and vote for him,” Pearce told the Journal.
Voices at the polls
At a polling site at the Daskalos Center in Albuquerque, Trish Brennan said she thought voter turnout would be heavier.
“I guess it’s lighter because of everything that’s going on with the pandemic and absentee voting and the rioting,” she said, referring to a wave of national and local violence triggered by the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by a white policeman in Minnesota.
“I had an absentee ballot and was going to mail it in, but today was the last day, so I thought I’d just come in and vote in person to make sure it’s going to count,” Brennan said.
Martha Visarriagas was getting ready to cast a ballot at the Soul Rio Church, at Southern Plaza in Rio Rancho. Like many people, she said, “I would have preferred to mail my ballot in, but I didn’t get to it in time.”
Visarriagas said she had no concerns about possible voter fraud with absentee ballots and would have liked the convenience of voting that way. “I just didn’t get it together in time.”
At Rio Grande High School in Bernalillo County’s South Valley, voting, which had been done in the school’s gymnasium during previous elections, was moved to the library for Tuesday’s primary, where 14 voting tables had been set up.
“Voter turnout has been very light,” presiding judge Elizabeth Zellner said.
One person who did show up to vote was Tranquilino Barela. “I always come here to vote,” he said. “This is my school. I graduated here in 1959. I don’t have a problem with absentee voting, I just don’t do it.”
Journal reporter Kyle Land contributed to this report.