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Clerk awaits direction for general election

Eileen Garbagni

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — In a primary election unlike any other, due to COVID-19, over half the votes cast in Sandoval County were absentee ballots.

The county had a total of 32,452 ballots cast in the primary, with 41.97 percent in voter turnout, according to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s website.

Sandoval County Clerk Eileen Garbagni said 26,908 ballots were sent out and 22,000 ballots were returned.

Garbagni said overall, the primary went smoothly and they received few complaints.

“So, we didn’t have concerns really or people being upset — some, of course, but it wasn’t a major number that complained about anything,” she said. “People were OK with either going to the sites, and then when they came to the site, we, of course, had gloves and masks and everything else for them to wear. We didn’t really have issues.”

The county won’t know how to proceed to the general election until legislators and the governor decide what they want counties to do, Garbagni said.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham added to the agenda of the special session that began Thursday, to grant county clerks the authority to send mail ballots to registered voters.

“At the legislature, they are going to decide what they want us to do, if they want us to do all mail-out or if we’re going do it like we did for the primary. We’re not sure,” Garbagni said.

The primary had fewer polling sites because senior centers, schools and others had health-safety concerns, she said.

“If in the general they give us more polling sites, it would be a lot more helpful. I think an all mail-out would be the best,” she said. “You wouldn’t need poll workers to count; you wouldn’t need polling sites; you don’t have to worry about people going to the sites at all. The general is going to be a lot higher in numbers; so we need to prepare for this.”

In the past, a bulk of ballots came from early voting, Garbagni said.

“This time around, because of the pandemic and all of the craziness with the virus, people were actually afraid at first, and then it went like a wildfire on a windy day,” she said.

With not as many people voting early, many mailed in ballots and dropped ballots off at polling sites and at the county building, Garbagni said. Hundreds of boxes of absentee ballots were delivered to be counted, she said.

“So that kept us till 3:45 a.m. to count everything,” Garbagni said.

When someone goes to cast a ballot, a ballot is placed in an envelope and then that envelope is placed into another, she said.

The inner envelope said “Primary Election 2020” and the date. The outer envelope has the voter’s name, address, a return label and a bar code, Garbagni said.

Neither envelope has a person’s party on the outside, she said. Ballots are placed into a lock-box that a sheriff’s deputy escorts to a warehouse to be counted, she said.

“The presiding judge opens that box and we had 20 people helping to count the ballots,” Garbagni said.

The judge counts the ballots and checks that the number of ballots delivered matches the number of ballots received at a voting precinct, she said. After the number is confirmed, those ballots are distributed to the 20 people counting.

The first envelopes are opened by one of 10 people, and the second envelope is set aside, Garbagni said.

“They put all of those envelopes in trays; they put them in order by date and how they came in, and put them aside,” she said.

Then the second set of 10 people opens the second envelopes and takes the ballots out and unfolds them, Garbagni explained.

“No one knows who voted on anything because the envelope with the names are put aside already. No one can view those envelopes anymore,” she said,

The ballots are placed in a tray, and then scanned, Garbagni said.

“And that’s how we read the number of people who voted and their party,” she said.

The Sandoval County Commission completed canvassing June 12. The state canvassing board meets on Tuesday.

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