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New Mexico sees heavy turnout weeks ahead of Election Day

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Christoper Nalls ensures his ballot made it into the official drop box outside the City/County Building in Downtown Albuquerque. More New Mexico voters have already submitted absentee ballots for this election than during the entire 2016 general election cycle. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Turnout in this year’s presidential election is about three times heavier so far than it was in 2016, propelled by an influx of absentee ballots.

More than 183,000 voters in New Mexico have already cast their ballots either in person or absentee, well beyond the 62,000 votes at this point in the 2016 election cycle.

Absentee ballots are helping drive the increase. More than 102,000 absentee ballots have already been returned, exceeding the total from the entire general-election cycle four years ago.

The strong turnout comes as New Mexico prepares to open a host of new early-voting locations Saturday, giving voters even more options to cast a ballot before Election Day.

Lonna Atkeson, an elections expert and political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said all signs point to high turnout, perhaps reaching the historic 70% participation in the 2008 presidential election.

“There’s just so much enthusiasm on both sides,” she said.

The big, early turnout reflects a broader trend among the New Mexico electorate, with more people opting to vote before Election Day.

But Brian Sanderoff, a political analyst and president of Research & Polling Inc., said he expects high turnout overall, with both Democrats and Republicans mobilizing their voters this year.

“I think the lines are drawn clearly between the supporters of Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” he said, “and I expect turnout to be higher than what we’ve seen in the last two presidential elections.”

Local officials prepared

Local officials say little is normal about this election season, from the threat of COVID-19 to the unprecedented level of interest.

Bernalillo County’s top election official said her office sent out roughly 151,000 absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election and had already accepted about 45,000 back as of Friday morning.

Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover also said there have been morning lines each day since the Clerk’s Annex opened Oct. 6 as the first early voting site.

“I don’t care if you’re 18 and voting for the very first time or you’re 90 and you’ve voted your entire life,” Stover said, “this is probably going to be the biggest election any of us have ever participated in.”

Bernalillo County’s in-person early voting will expand Saturday to 18 sites, and the clerk’s office has collaborations across county government to keep the venues safe.

County Manager Julie Morgas Baca said she will make county employees under her authority available for anything needed, whether that means greeting voters or sanitizing ballot stations. She called it an “all-hands-on-deck situation.”

Officials say they are also working to ensure that polling places remain free of voter intimidation. Stover said there have been no such incidents during early voting at the Clerk’s Annex but said the presiding judge at each polling site can call her office should they have any concerns. If necessary, clerk’s office employees may visit the site themselves to address a problem or call in law enforcement.

The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office has provided election law training to the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and the Albuquerque Police Department, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Chuck Barth. The DA’s Office will also have deputy district attorneys available by phone on Election Day to provide related advice to poll workers and law enforcement personnel.

In New Mexico, Barth said, it’s a fourth-degree felony punishable by up to 18 months in jail to “threaten harm or induce fear for the purpose of suppressing the vote or interfering with the election.”

“I want to stress to the public the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office will investigate fully any attempt to interfere with this election and, if appropriate, will prosecute violators to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.

Stover said she has hired nearly 1,000 election workers, fully filling positions across polling sites and on the absentee board. Even so, she is urging the public to submit absentee ballots as early as possible to avoid the last-minute onslaught seen in the June primary when over 17,000 ballots arrived on Election Day.

“The earlier you vote and get your stuff in,” Stover said, “the earlier we’ll be able to get organized and give you results on election night.”

Manner of voting is partisan

About 14% of the state’s registered voters have already cast their ballot.

It isn’t just absentee voting driving the increased participation, Atkeson said. The number of people who cast ballots on the first day of in-person voting earlier this month, she said, was far higher than it had ever been.

Interestingly, Democrats and Republicans are opting for different ways to participate.

Sanderoff said Democrats account for a disproportionate share – about 66% – of absentee votes so far, while Republicans outnumber Democrats among those having voted in person.

Republicans, he said, may be more skeptical about voting by mail – influenced by President Trump’s criticism – and less worried about the risk of COVID-19. Democrats, in turn, appear more likely to seek a way to participate that limits the chance for disease transmission.

“Partisan politics,” Sanderoff said, “is influencing even the way or manner in which people are voting.”

Nonetheless, Sanderoff said, both parties are mobilizing their voters.

About 804,00 voters – or 62% of those registered – participated in the 2016 general election. About 787,000 voters cast ballots in 2012.

New Mexico’s largest turnout – by raw vote totals – was 833,365 votes in 2008, the year Democrat Barack Obama first won election.

Atkeson said this year has a chance even to beat the 2008 totals, perhaps reaching about 70% and 900,000 votes.

“I think we’re going to have really high turnout,” she said.

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