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NM ballot box dispute resolved – for now

A poll worker with the Santa Fe County Clerk’s office mans an absentee ballot drop box outside the Santa Fe County Administration Building in this May file photo. Many New Mexico counties have set up ballot drop boxes to give voters more options during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A Republican-backed lawsuit targeting absentee ballot drop box protocols was dismissed Thursday after two New Mexico county clerks agreed to make changes.

The lawsuit, one of two GOP court challenges filed in the run-up to Election Day, was aimed at ballot box procedures in two largely Democratic counties: Taos and Guadulupe.

But the Republican Party dismissed both county clerks from the case after out-of-court agreements were reached.

 Maggie Toulouse Oliver

In one instance, Taos County Clerk Anna Martinez agreed to move a ballot box inside the county courthouse – in view of poll workers – and keep it there through Election Day, according to court filings.

That prompted state District Judge T. Glenn Ellington to grant a motion to dismiss the case, saying no controversy was currently pending.

However, the attorney for the Republican Party, Carter Harrison IV of Albuquerque, suggested the litigation could be revived after this year’s election due to lingering disagreements over the legality of ballot drop boxes.

“The drop boxes overall as a construct don’t have a place in the election code,” Harrison said during Thursday’s hearing, which was conducted virtually.

The partisan legal disputes are flaring up amid unprecedented absentee voting levels in New Mexico.

Statewide, a total of 660,763 New Mexico voters had cast their ballots as of Thursday morning, with absentee ballots representing 292,066 – or about 44.2% – of the votes cast, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

Absentee ballot drop boxes are not mandatory, but Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver encouraged all 33 county clerks to provide the option to voters.

In a September memo to county clerks, the Democratic secretary of state said county clerks should, at a minimum, have drop boxes available at every voting location.

The memo also stipulated minimum requirements for securing drop boxes, including supervision by at least two county staffers or election workers and daily ballot removal.

A Secretary of State’s office spokesman said after Thursday’s hearing the state GOP had agreed to drop its request for a court injunction contingent on Toulouse Oliver reiterating those guidelines.

Steve Pearce

“This was an acknowledgment that (the Republican Party) knows these drop boxes are legal under New Mexico law, and that it was absolutely appropriate for the secretary of state to provide this safe and efficient option for voters to make their voice heard in the 2020 general election,” said Alex Curtas, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office.

However, state GOP chairman Steve Pearce said the lawsuit had succeeded in correcting ballot drop box violations.

“Our legal action was to simply ensure that there’s election integrity everywhere and that all counties follow the law,” Pearce said in a statement.

The other Republican-backed election lawsuit dealt with the role of poll watchers in verifying absentee ballots.

The state Supreme Court declined to hear that case this week, but Republican Party officials said Thursday they have discussed the issue with the U.S. Department of Justice.

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