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The early bird is sure to count

Dell Weston receives hand sanitizer from a poll worker at the fairgrounds early voting center Saturday in Santa Fe. Weston, a retired artist and metalworker, said he’s a Republican and plans to vote for President Donald Trump. He picked up a sample ballot so he could research local candidates and issues before he votes in the coming weeks. (Cedar Attanasio/Associated Press)

SANTA FE – Voters flocked to early voting locations Saturday as New Mexico expands early balloting in the lead-up to Election Day on Nov. 3.

At an early voting center in Santa Fe, cars lined up hours ahead of the 10 a.m. opening time.

Reports of slow mail and long in-person voting lines in other states motivated many voters to show up early.

“The mail is already clogged up and slowed down,” said Shirley Fillas, 70, a Democratic voter who parked outside the locked gates around 7:30 a.m. to drop off her absentee ballot.

By the time the doors opened, 175 people were lined up at the voting center, many parked along the road at the nearby rodeo grounds.

“I heard on the news about eight-hour lines, so I came here early,” said Betty Bustamante, 68, who sat near the front of the line in a blue folding chair.

People line up for early voting at The Shoppes at 6001 San Mateo NE in Albuquerque on Saturday afternoon. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Scores of voting convenience centers opened Saturday amid a surge in early in-person and remote absentee balloting. Those centers accept voters from across their home county without regard to traditional precinct assignments.

In-person early voting extends for two weeks through Oct. 31.

“I’ve still got weeks to make up my mind and investigate,” said Dell Weston, a Republican and Trump supporter who’s not sure whom he’ll vote for in New Mexico’s Senate race.

Weston, 81, stopped by to get a sample ballot so he could research local races and referendums in his precinct before voting in person.

He wants to research Republican Senate candidate and former TV weatherman Mark Ronchetti and Democratic candidate Ben Ray Luján, a six-term U.S. representative. He said he doesn’t trust the ads he’s seen on TV about Ronchetti.

Sandy Martinez begins filling in the first in-person ballot of the day at an early voting center on Saturday in Santa Fe. Early voting in New Mexico runs for two weeks through Oct. 31. (Cedar Attanasio/Associated Press)

More than 180,000 ballots have been cast statewide, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. As of Friday, Democrats accounted for nearly 55% of the tally, with a strong tendency toward voting by absentee ballot.

Registered Republicans accounted for one-third of ballots cast and mostly voted in person.

Oct. 20 is the final day to request an absentee ballot.

Early in-person voting has been happening at county clerk offices. Starting Saturday, it’s easier to vote in person ahead of Nov. 3, with opening hours and locations varying by day and by county.

Jacob and Kundra Hernandez, 19-year-old twins from Santa Fe said they were voting for the first time Saturday and support Joe Biden.

“Why would we pick anyone else?” Jacob Hernandez asked as he stood in line at an early voting location Saturday.

President Donald Trump is getting a second chance to win New Mexico after losing the state in 2016 to Hillary Clinton by 8 percentage points. Other closely watched races include a rematch in the 2nd Congressional District race as former state Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo, challenges U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small.

The entire Legislature is up for election after a progressive wave of primary candidates forced out several incumbent Democratic senators.

Weston and Fillas are on opposites sides of the political divide but have plenty in common.

Both say they’ve been reading and watching the news for hours each day and relying on their church communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like Biden, Weston is an active Catholic but says that commonality “means nothing.”

Fillas, who volunteers with her Baptist church, says Trump doesn’t embody her Christian values.

“I’m a strong Christian, and I am against abortion. I can’t stand Trump at all,” she says.

Fillas’ refuge from politics is her Baptist church community.

“I had knee surgery this year, and 20 people volunteered to bring me food. It made me cry,” she says.