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An election like no other

Presiding Judge Andrea Campos, center, and her staff process and scan absentee ballots in the Rio Arriba County Clerk’s office in Tierra Amarilla. The county has received more than 3,000 absentee ballots so far. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

For most people, voting in an election involves going to the local polling location and filling out a ballot form. However, this year will be – and has been – different for most people.

Election officials have been racing to prepare for an unprecedented surge in absentee ballots and early voting as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages traditional voting norms.

While improvements have been made, many still face confusion and new challenges casting their ballot in an altered state of normal.

Statewide, there have been more than 384,000 absentee ballots cast, compared to 172,136 such ballots in 2008, according to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office. Projections indicate more than 900,000 people will vote in the 2020 election, about 100,000 more than the 2008 election, said Alex Curtas, director of communications for the office.

The state’s most populous areas have seen some of the largest increases. In particular, Santa Fe County has seen nearly 50,000 absentee ballots submitted as of Thursday, with an additional 28,000 participating in early voting.

During the primary elections in June, Santa Fe County was the last in the state to finish counting ballots, due in large part to the influx of mail-in votes that arrived and a shortage of volunteers. All in all, it took several days to count 39,000 ballots.

Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar said in August her office planned on hiring 30 workers to help count ballots on election night, which would be enough to speed up the process.

Salazar did not return multiple requests for comment from the Journal last week.

Mailing it in

But increased voter turnouts are not reserved for just urban areas. Rural counties, such as Rio Arriba, are seeing a similar uptick in those voting early and by mail.

From left, Larry Vigil, Brenda Lee Gallegos and David Martinez scan absentee ballots to verify them against the Rio Arriba County Clerk’s list. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

In 2016, during the past presidential election, 623 voters mailed in absentee ballots to the Rio Arriba County Clerk’s Office in Tierra Amarilla. This year, that number has swelled to more than 3,500 absentee ballots mailed in by the county’s 25,000 registered voters.

So far, more than 9,000 people in Rio Arriba have either voted early or by mail.

That increase has forced county officials to adopt new methods to make the counting process more efficient, County Elections Bureau Chief Michele Jordan said.

In previous elections, Rio Arriba’s absentee board wouldn’t go through the process of verifying absentee ballots until after Election Day. The often tedious process then involves members of the board running names on ballots against a printed list of registered voters, and then sorting them by hand alphabetically.

The result was a drawn-out process exacerbated by the surge in ballots. When the board attempted to verify ballots during the June primary elections, it took them three days to complete the process for the thousands of absentee ballots that came in.

“It’s very prehistoric,” Presiding Judge Andrea Campos said. “The clerks and the candidates get upset because we’re not done.”

Out of necessity, the system has had to update. Board members can now scan ballots one by one, and then use an electronic list of voters to verify ballots.

On Thursday, the new system was put into action, with absentee board members forming a small assembly line of scanning and sorting ballots. Jordan said the process is much faster and that the county will continue to use it in future elections.

But the large number of absentee ballots returned doesn’t mean the new process hasn’t caused some confusion.

Jordan said there are many voters in the county who have never voted by mail before and now are navigating the learning curve of an absentee ballot, which requires more signatures and information from a voter.

She said the main confusion for voters is placing the last four digits of their social security number on the envelope before mailing it in. Many voters, she said, feel apprehensive and say they do not understand why it needs to be listed – some leave it blank as a result.

Curtas said there aren’t any widespread issues of people not knowing how to fill out their absentee ballot.

In previous years, the clerk’s office would not have reached out to voters who filled out ballots incorrectly, but new rules passed in the state Legislature have created new procedures for voters to correct ballots.

“There was no rule or statute that allowed for us to wait for you to come in and sign,” Jordan said. “Now, we’re sending letters, so it’s literally a new process.”

But some voters never had the chance to fix their ballot because they never received it.

Voter Dale Richards had requested an absentee ballot, but never got it. So, instead, he went to the Santa Fe Convention Center to vote early.

Ultimately, Richards said the lost ballot was irrelevant because he still got to vote.

David Boyington’s absentee ballot was also lost; he never received it, even though he requested one. He came down to the convention center to try and track it down, but ended up voting in person, anyway.

A matter of trust

However, Jordan said the more troubling revelation has been the distrust for voting by mail among the general public.

President Donald Trump, among others, has repeatedly accused absentee ballots of being fraudulent and has encouraged supporters to look for examples of fraud at polling stations. There is no evidence to support these claims.

April Alire cast her ballot in Española during early voting for the general election. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

But Jordan, who’s worked for the county for 18 years, said she regularly receives calls from concerned voters who say they don’t trust voting by mail, many of whom see such claims on social media.

“They call to tell us they’re going to vote at early voting or Election Day, because they don’t trust us,” she said. “It bothers me a little bit.”

Kenny Medina, who voted early in Española, said he preferred to vote in person rather than through the mail.

“I don’t trust paper,” he said. “It could get lost. We’re all human beings and we all make mistakes.”

Campos said she’s heard from a lot of friends who are scared their ballots will be altered once they mail them in, but she assures them that’s not the case.

“We’re not going to mess with ballots at all, ever,” she said.

While some might not trust mail-in voting, voters might stick to these newfound habits after this election.

“I think a lot of people haven’t had experience voting with an absentee ballot before and I think that’s what a lot of people are thinking – is this going to change the way that we vote going forward?” Curtas said.

A new normal

Curtas said he thinks it’s a safe assumption that there will be more mail-in voting in the future. Washington state already mails a ballot to all registered voters, though they still have in-person voting.

But Alabama, for example, still requires mail-in ballots to be notarized and other states require multiple witnesses just to request an absentee ballot.

“I mean that’s kind of nuts in my mind,” he said.

Mail-in voting was already trending upward, Curtas said, but then COVID-19 hit and people had to rethink voting. More people are being exposed to absentee or mail-in voting, and they realize how easy, safe and efficient it is, he said.

But he doesn’t think in-person voting is going away, either.

In New Mexico, more people are getting used to mail-in voting, regardless of COVID-19, because all special elections are required to be mail-in ballots.

George Maestas, with the Rio Arriba County Clerk’s Office, disinfects a used voting booth at an early voting location in Tierra Amarilla. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Many of those choosing to vote early also have to make much longer drives in some areas of the county.

A new law requires in-person voting precincts to have certain data connectivity requirements; all other precincts must be mail-in only.

Rio Arriba has seen its number of mail-in-only precincts increase from two in the past election to nine.

As a result, Jordan said many voters in rural communities are driving multiple hours each way to cast their ballot, rather than send it by mail.

Confusion reigns

Steve Pearce, Republican Party of New Mexico chairman, said the party isn’t getting too many calls from confused voters. But some people ask about all the absentee ballot request forms they were getting earlier this election.

For early voting, he said the Republican Party received phone calls from people in rural counties where there was only one polling location. If a voter has to drive 60 to 100 miles to cast their ballot, that’s voter suppression, he said.

In general, the party has been able to get more polling locations open, he said.

“Most Republicans tend to want to vote in person and many of us on Election Day,” Pearce said. “We’ve been (saying) please go vote early because there are going to be massive lines on Election Day.”

To help confused voters, the Democratic Party of New Mexico launched a voter hotline to help answer any questions that voters might have, Miranda van Dijk, communications director with the Democratic Party, said.

Since it went live on Aug. 31, the hotline has received over 800 phone calls. Van Dijk said the earlier calls were about how to request an absentee ballot, whether people could vote in person if they changed their mind about absentee, and more.

As far as filling out absentee ballots correctly, van Dijk said there are definitely some challenges for people because it’s a new process for many.

The Democratic Party had voter hotlines in the past, but van Dijk said it was expanded this year. She said it’s important people have the correct information to vote and they want to help with that.

Official results

However, despite the hustle to get to the polls, voters probably won’t know the official election results on election night – and that’s completely normal, Curtas said. Poll workers stop counting around 11 p.m. to avoid exhaustion and errors.

To help ease election-night counting, counties are allowed to start processing absentee ballots as soon as 14 days from Election Day, although those results can’t be counted until that night. That helps make sure county clerks aren’t overwhelmed on Election Day, he said.

“I have to emphasize our results are never official on election night, in any election, and counting always goes on after election night,” Curtas said. “That’s just the normal way in which elections work … and so the public should be prepared for that.”

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