Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico voters who don’t want to risk having their mailed absentee ballots arrive too late to be counted will have another option this fall – ballot drop boxes in most counties.
With an avalanche of absentee ballots expected for the Nov. 3 general election after records were shattered during the June primary election, backers say drop boxes minimize person-to-person contact during the coronavirus pandemic while encouraging voter participation.
“We really are trying to accommodate the public with this,” Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover said Tuesday. “That way you don’t have to mess with the post office and don’t have to worry about COVID-19.”
For now, the drop boxes will primarily be at existing polling places and county clerks’ offices, although there could be some exceptions.
In Bernalillo County, for instance, completed absentee ballots can be dropped off at a drive-through location at Expo New Mexico starting Oct. 6, when absentee voting begins statewide.
They can also be turned in at the County Clerk’s Annex and, once early voting begins Oct. 17, at any early voting convenience center.
Under a 2019 state law, the drop boxes – or secured containers – can be installed outside traditional polling places, although county clerks are required to publicly disclose such locations in advance and adhere to strict security guidelines.
“This isn’t going to be something sitting in the middle of nowhere with no one around,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, a former state elections director who provides technical assistance to county clerks. “It’s not going to be sitting there unattended.”
Although the drop boxes are not mandatory, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver has encouraged all 33 county clerks to provide the option to voters.
The expenses related to purchasing and installing the drop boxes will be reimbursed by $6 million in federal pandemic relief funds, Secretary of State’s Office spokesman Alex Curtas said Tuesday.
In a recent memo to county clerks, the Secretary of State’s Office said county clerks should, at a minimum, have drop boxes available at every voting location.
“It’s definitely something that’s part of the modern election infrastructure,” Curtas said.
The memo also stipulates minimum requirements for securing drop boxes, including constant supervision by at least two county staffers or election workers and daily ballot removal. In addition, the drop boxes should either be bolted down or easily movable so they can be transported to a secure location when not in use.
County clerks in at least 10 counties – including Bernalillo, Santa Fe and Dona Ana – began sending out absentee ballot applications to all registered voters this week.
But thousands of voters statewide have already submitted applications, including more than 82,000 registered voters in Bernalillo County as of Tuesday, Stover said.
Absentee voting rates skyrocketed during the June primary, after top-ranking state Democrats urged voters to mail in their ballots to reduce person-to-person contact during the pandemic.
In all, a record 264,793 New Mexico voters used the method to cast their ballots – or about 63.4% of all votes cast.
However, thousands of additional absentee ballots were delivered to county clerks too late to be counted on Election Day.
For the general election, the application deadline for requesting an absentee ballot has been moved up to Oct. 20 in an attempt to reduce the number of ballots that are returned too late to be counted.
Completed absentee ballots can be dropped off at any polling location – with or without a drop box – although voters must hand in their ballots in the same county they are registered to vote in, Curtas said.
In addition to a high-profile presidential race, all 112 legislative seats and various judicial and county-level offices are up for election this year.