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NM moves forward with emergency voting plans

A voter, left, provides a signature to receive a ballot at a makeshift polling station inside a parking garage in Santa Fe on May 5. The New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office briefed lawmakers Tuesday on new election procedures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a big jump in absentee voting. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press)

SANTA FE – New Mexico election regulators say they’ll move forward with an initiative that allows voters to trace mail-in ballots with the use of an individualized bar code in cooperation with the U.S. Postal Service.

Officials with the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office briefed lawmakers this week on new election procedures that respond to the coronavirus pandemic and a large increase in absentee voting.

State Elections Director Mandy Vigil said she was relieved by Tuesday’s announcement by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy that he would halt operational changes to mail delivery that critics warned could disrupt November’s elections. New Mexico’s attorney general filed suit alongside other states to try to stop the changes.

Vigil said her office has worked closely with regional Postal Service officials on plans to place an “intelligent bar code” on the outer envelope of absentee ballots.

The bar code will allow a registered voter to track a ballot through post office facilities on its way to their home and then back to the local county clerk’s office. Under New Mexico law, ballots that arrive after 7 p.m. on Election Day are not valid.

Absentee ballots accounted for 63% of votes in the June statewide primary, up from 7% in the 2016 primary. Overall participation also spiked.

The ballot tracing initiative is among a long list of emergency measures adopted in late June by the Legislature and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and related problems in the state’s June 2 primary.

New Mexico is adding new voter identification measures to the absentee balloting process and encouraging counties to distribute applications 50 days before the general election.

For the first time, absentee ballots that can be turned in by hand or mail must be signed on the outer envelope and labeled with the last four digits of the voter’s Social Security number. Election officials will reject most applications for absentee ballots received after Oct. 20. There will be exceptions for overseas voters as a precaution against people having unrealistic expectations for mail delivery and winding up being disenfranchised.

“That is just a reality that the post office at that particular time couldn’t guarantee delivery of a ballot – and then the person to return that ballot within seven days,” said Dylan Lange, an attorney for the Secretary of State’s Office. “So this is an acknowledgment, kind of anticipating any post office issues that the state may face.”

Ten counties that include most of the state’s population plan to distribute absentee applications automatically to registered voters with a recently confirmed mailing address.

The state Supreme Court in April rejected a proposal backed by Democrats to distribute ballots to all registered voters without a prior application, and the Legislature balked at the idea in June.

Significant changes also are in store for Election Day voting on Nov. 3.

In-person voters will be free to cast ballots at any precinct across their home county, not just at assigned precincts close to home, with limited exceptions, Lange said.

In November, some polling places in Native American communities may be closed to outsiders in deference to tribes that have shut their borders or instituted curfews as a precaution against the COVID-19 pandemic.

State law previously prohibited polling locations that don’t have full public access. But that interfered with June primary voting at autonomous Native American communities where travel restrictions or curfews were in place due to COVID-19.

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