Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The last time Santa Fe County had an election, it took workers several days to count all the ballots, with an unprecedented number of them mailed in by voters.
Next election, they’ll have even more. A lot more.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic first struck New Mexico, county clerks have been pushing for more voters to use mail-in ballots rather than voting at traditional polling sites, which officials argue is a safer option given the severity of the pandemic.
A large number of voters took that advice for the June primary election, as Santa Fe County mailed out a staggering 39,000 ballots to voters beforehand.
Counting those ballots, however, proved challenging. County Clerk Geraldine Salazar and other election workers said the 13 workers on staff were much fewer than normal, leading to a bottleneck of ballots to be counted.
“We hadn’t experienced that many (ballots) before,” she said. “We need more work stations, we need more election workers.”
On top of the late count, 316 absentee ballots in Santa Fe County arrived too late to be counted, according to a previous Journal article.
The First Judicial District Court granted the clerk’s office more time to count ballots, but Santa Fe County was still the last in New Mexico to release any voting results from election night.
Judy Williams from the League of Women Voters of Santa Fe County said county officials were put in a difficult position, especially since the state Supreme Court ruled against making the election by mail only.
“It was the first time that there were massive absentee ballot submissions,” Williams said. “I know that the county clerk’s people were really working like crazy.”
Salazar said there’s still some concerns about Election Day in November.
“We are very overwhelmed,” she told county commissioners Tuesday. “It’s very stressful. I still haven’t recovered 100% from the primary election.”
Salazar told the Journal that stress comes from preparing to send out applications for even more mail-in ballots in the next election.
Santa Fe is one of several counties in the state mailing out absentee ballot applications to voters ahead of the election. Salazar said the county will send around 90,000 applications, more than double the number of mail-in ballots in June.
To better prepare for the high number of ballots, the county plans on increasing work stations and hiring 30 workers to count ballots, Salazar said. Voters can also drop off ballots at the county clerk’s office or at any polling site.
State lawmakers also approved a change to election law, moving up the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot to Oct. 20.
Alex Curtas, spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office, said this was to give counties more time to count ballots and prevent votes from being sent too late to be counted.
In the middle of election planning, the nonprofit Center for Voting Information sent out almost 400,000 absentee ballot applications to voters in New Mexico, around 29,000 of those going to Santa Fe County, Salazar said.
While these applications are valid, Salazar said they have led to confusion for some voters, especially since the county plans on sending out applications on Sept. 14.
“It causes confusion for the voter and some of them call me upset,” she said.
Despite the new rules and additional resources, Salazar said there’s no guarantee they won’t have another late night in November.
“If we feel that we need more time and we need to go to district court to extend our time, then we will,” she said.
Williams said voters can’t always expect the quick turnarounds for voting results that existed before the pandemic.
“I don’t think the country’s going to fall apart if we get results the next morning,” she said. “That might be the price of what’s going on.”