Patty Cotterell was prepared to stay as long as necessary. When you commit to working an election, that’s just the expectation, she said.
But when the clock struck 11 p.m. Tuesday and Bernalillo County’s top election official told Cotterell and dozens of other absentee ballot processors to call it a day, relief washed over her.
“Thank you, Lord,” Cotterell remembers thinking.
She had been working since 7 a.m.
“That’s a long day, even with breaks, especially when they said we had sufficient work to carry us through 3 or 4 in the morning,” said Cotterell, a 75-year-old retired federal employee who has worked elections for the past decade. “That would’ve been, I think, inhumane.”
This unprecedented, coronavirus-plagued era led to an unprecedented primary election Tuesday, with 2½ times as many Bernalillo County residents voting by absentee ballot than at the polls.
The county’s absentee board began its work May 18 and had almost 100,000 ballots to process, nearly 18,000 of which arrived Tuesday.
Even after 16 hours of Election Day processing, the absentee board had not finished, and County Clerk Linda Stover said it was obvious the workers she calls “champions” – many of them seniors – needed a break.
“There was one little old guy who looked like he was going to put his head on the table,” Stover said. “I felt so sorry for them; they’d been there so long.”
The crew resumed action at 9 a.m. Wednesday and finally finished about 6 p.m., Stover said.
Stover said the office has not missed any statutory deadlines for counting, though some New Mexico jurisdictions – including Santa Fe – asked courts for additional time to count the absentee ballots.
COVID-19 created what Stover called “a brand-new ballgame” and led to the absentee onslaught.
With the deadly virus forcing a near total shutdown of the United States, New Mexico’s election officials had petitioned the state Supreme Court to make the June 3 primary an all-mail election. But in denying that request April 14, the court ordered clerks to send every voter an absentee ballot application to help reduce in-person voting.
The order led to a hurried effort to educate voters, send and process absentee applications and mail and process the ballots themselves.
The Bernalillo County response was immense. More than 122,000 people, or about 38% of all eligible voters, requested ballots, and 98,861 submitted them. Absentee ballots are normally a small percentage of the total.
Despite the virus making recruiting election help harder than usual, Stover’s office ultimately hired 55 people to work on the absentee board – more than double the number used in last fall’s local election. But it was not enough manpower to finish the job on Election Day. Voters had until May 28 to request an absentee ballot and until Election Day to submit it. Stover said ballots kept coming in Tuesday.
Cotterell said the late rush was overwhelming and somewhat unexpected. Ballots were mailed out starting May 5.
She said that processing remained smooth despite the volume and that staff fatigue may have slowed things down but did not otherwise alter the multiphase system, which includes many checks and balances.
“I’m so proud,” she said of her participation. “I’m proud that I was part of the process; I’m proud that I saw democracy in action and people doing what they should do.
“People voted, and we responded by getting those votes counted, and everybody had a voice.”
Stover said she probably will hire more absentee board staff in the future – a future that remains hard to predict. The clerk said that she hopes a similar absentee election is not necessary for the Nov. 3 general election but that she will likely plan for it to avoid the rushed implementation of the primary.
“I don’t want to get caught not being prepared,” she said. “It will be a blessing if it doesn’t (go the same way), but I have to look at it as though it will.”