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NM voter turnout swells; GOP files absentee ballot suit

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Gene Muñoz and his 85-year-old mother, Priscylla Muñoz, brave the snow and cold temperatures on Monday to cast their ballots at the early voting site on 98th near Central NW.

SANTA FE – With just a week until Election Day, voter turnout across New Mexico continues to surge toward possible record levels.

More than 562,000 New Mexico voters had already cast their ballots via absentee or early voting as of Monday – or about 42.2% of all registered voters.

Meanwhile, partisan disputes are flaring up even before vote-counting begins.

The state Republican Party filed an emergency petition over the weekend arguing that state election officials are improperly directing county clerks to bar poll watchers from observing some of the processing of absentee ballots. The Secretary of State’s Office, in turn, says clerks are simply following the law.

Voter participation, nonetheless, has been strong – with more than half of registered voters already having cast a ballot in some parts of the state.

“The urban counties are turning out more, especially by absentee voting,” said Lonna Atkeson, a University of New Mexico professor and director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy.

But rural counties have a chance to catch up, she said. Their voters are more likely to vote in person and may cast ballots closer to or on Election Day.

In Santa Fe County, 53,496 of the county’s more than 105,000 registered voters – or about 50.7% – had already voted as of Monday.

Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar said an expanded team of volunteer poll workers had already begun processing absentee ballots, in part by using a new scanning system that was installed after a ballot-counting delay in the June primary election.

“So far, everything is going well and I’m hoping for the best to the end,” Salazar told the Journal. “We’ll be prepared no matter what.”

She also said many voters appeared eager to vote before Election Day – either in person or via absentee ballot – in part due to concerns over the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve been really pushing voters to vote early and they’ve been responding,” Salazar said.

Statewide, of the 562,909 New Mexico voters who had cast their ballots as of Monday morning, 252,905 voters cast absentee ballots and 310,004 had voted in person, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

Registered Democrats had outvoted Republicans by a roughly three-to-one margin in absentee voting – 159,668 to 53,516 – though Republicans had cast more in-person ballots than Democrats.

Overall, the statewide voter turnout as of Monday already amounts to roughly 70% of the 804,073 voters who cast ballots in the 2016 general election – the most recent presidential election year – when total turnout ended up hitting 62.4%.

New Mexico’s highest voter turnout in recent history was in 2008, when more than 70% of registered state voters cast ballots. Democrat Barack Obama defeated Republican John McCain in that year’s presidential election.

Courts involved

Even as turnout swells, some of New Mexico’s temporary election procedures – established this year to help address the coronavirus pandemic – are headed to court.

The state Republican Party, two of its legislative leaders and four GOP county clerks filed an emergency petition with the state Supreme Court, asking the justices to clarify parts of the process for verifying absentee ballots.

They are asking that political parties and their challengers be permitted to watch as staff members in county clerk’s offices review absentee ballots to ensure voters signed an outer envelope and included the last four digits of their Social Security numbers.

Karina Bustillos didn’t let cold temperatures get in the way of her plans to vote on Monday. She and her 8-year-old son, Ian, were among those at the early voting site on 98th near Central NW. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The initial check of signatures and Social Security numbers comes before the ballots are transferred to an election board – a multi-party panel of temporary election workers – who determine whether each ballot came from a qualified voter and tally the votes.

The initial determination concerning the signature and Social Security number is subject to a challenge before the election board.

But the Republican Party petition says its observers have sometimes been barred from watching the initial process. They raise other questions in their filing, too, contending they “have observed alarming disparities among counties – sometimes even within a single county – in the interpretation and implementation” of the new election law.

State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat who helped write the new law, said it’s normal for counties to have slightly different procedures that don’t affect the “fairness of the vote.”

Nonetheless, individuals appointed by the political parties are still empowered to challenge the validity of someone’s vote, he said, if they have reason to doubt the person is qualified. But that doesn’t mean they get access to voters’ Social Security numbers, Ivey-Soto said.

“Frankly,” he said, “voters should appreciate the fact that we are doing this in a diligent manner without publicizing the last four digits of their Social Security number. We are not being reckless with that information.”

Alex Curtas, a spokesman for Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, said her office is confident clerks are following the law and that “voters should have confidence that their vote will be counted and that their personally identifying information will be protected in accordance with the law no matter if they vote by absentee ballot or vote safely in person.”

The Supreme Court has not yet said whether it will rule on the case, but on Monday ordered the Secretary of State’s office to file a response by Tuesday.

Also, two Supreme Court justices appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham who are up for election this year – Shannon Bacon and David Thomson – have recused themselves from the case.

Suggested deadline

Turnout, meanwhile, is expected to continue at a heavy pace through Election Day.

Election officials say today, Tuesday, is their suggested deadline for voters who intend to mail an absentee ballot back to their county clerk.

Absentee ballots that are not delivered by the time polls close on Election Day – Nov. 3 – are not counted, per state law.

Absentee ballots can also be returned by hand, and early voting locations are open through Saturday.

Polls will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day.

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