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New Mexico voter turnout nears record

Presiding Judge Casey Frew, left, and clerk Jackee Verhulst work with ballots at the Bernalillo County election warehouse Monday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico is on track to shoot past its all-time voter turnout record as an unprecedented Election Day finally arrives to determine the race for president, open seats in the House and Senate, and control of the Legislature.

A historic influx of absentee ballots has already helped push participation in this year’s general election to 57% of registered voters. More than 770,000 votes have been cast – equal to roughly 92% of the votes in the entire 2008 general election, the state’s record.

Even light turnout on Election Day should send New Mexico’s turnout past 2008 vote totals.

We’re going to blow through the raw number, for sure,” said Lonna Atkeson, a University of New Mexico professor and director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy.

Reaching 70% turnout of registered voters – the figure from 2008 – is also within reach. It would require about 945,000 voters to cast ballots.

State election officials are also asking voters to be patient this week as they work to tabulate the unofficial results – a process that could take a day or two beyond Election Day. Absentee ballots require longer to process because election workers have to check signatures, Social Security numbers and other information to ensure the ballots are from qualified voters.

“The real difference this year is the volume of vote-by-mail ballots,” Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver told reporters, referring to the 314,372 absentee ballots already cast as of Monday.

There were also roughly 71,000 absentee ballots that had been requested by New Mexico voters but not yet returned.

However, state Republican Party officials have criticized election officials’ warnings about the possibility of an extended vote-counting period.

New Mexico GOP Chairman Steve Pearce, echoing comments made by President Donald Trump, suggested vote integrity questions will be raised the longer vote-counting continues.

“They’ve known for eight months it was going to be this way,” Pearce told the Journal, referring to the changes in voter behavior caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

He also rejected claims Republican election challengers have been unruly in Doña Ana County, saying of election officials, “They’ve never seen this kind of oversight before.”

Karen Bentrup, a member of a new group called Count Every Vote New Mexico, said election officials deserve the time to tabulate every legitimate ballot, even if a candidate declares victory.

“We’re not going to know tomorrow who won this election,” she said Monday. “We need to give time for all the absentee ballots to be counted.”

Based on state voter registration levels, New Mexico Democrats and Republicans have been voting at an even clip.

About 48.4% of votes have been cast by registered Democrats, who have a big lead over Republicans when it comes to absentee voting, said longtime New Mexico political observer Brian Sanderoff, the president of Research & Polling Inc.

Meanwhile, about 34.7% of votes have been cast by Republicans, who have an edge when it comes to in-person voting.

Democrats make up about 45.2% of the state’s more than 1.3 million registered voters, while Republicans make up roughly 31.3%, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Ballot deadline

While some states allow ballots postmarked by Election Day to be tallied, only ballots that reach New Mexico’s county clerks by 7 p.m. Tuesday – the close of polls – will be counted.

Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat and the state’s top election officer, said election officials will try to communicate on election night an estimate of how many votes are outstanding and not included in the unofficial results posted on state and county websites.

People line up for early voting at Holly Plaza Shopping Center in Albuquerque on Oct. 17. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“We want to make sure we’re giving everybody a clear picture of what we’re seeing on election night,” Toulouse Oliver told reporters. “I’m feeling optimistic that we should be able to get through the absentee vote within a day or two after Election Day.”

It’s perfectly normal, she said, for vote counting to continue past election night. In fact, the canvassing process to certify the official results typically takes a few weeks. There are also provisions for automatic recounts in close races, Toulouse Oliver said, and a post-election audit to verify the accuracy of the results.

A new state law, enacted temporarily for this election cycle, calls for election workers who handle absentee ballots to stop their work at 11 p.m. on election night and resume the next day.

The coronavirus pandemic, Toulouse Oliver said, is also a complication, requiring election workers to find more space to spread out.

Election Day voting

As for Election Day, Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover said she expects plenty of voters to head to the polls on the last day of voting. She encouraged people to bring an umbrella for shade, wear a mask and look over a sample ballot before entering the polling location.

“I expect there to be a little bit of a crowd,” Stover, a Democrat, said in an interview Monday.

Toulouse Oliver said the polls are usually busiest early in the morning, at lunchtime and after work hours. She suggested midmorning and midafternoon as good times to vote in person.

Voters who haven’t yet returned their absentee ballots can do so at any polling location. In Bernalillo County, Stover said, a drive-through drop box will be available at Fifth and Marquette NW in Downtown Albuquerque.

Under state law, election workers in counties with a high demand for absentee ballots – including Bernalillo County – were able to start processing such ballots 14 days before Election Day.

They cannot actually produce a tally of the votes, however, until after polls close Tuesday.

Stover said she expects to publish the results from early voting and the absentee votes that were processed ahead of time about 30 minutes after polls close.

The results from Election Day polling locations and last-minute absentee ballots will be posted as they come in throughout the night.

On the ballot

Voters will determine who gets New Mexico’s five electoral votes in the presidential race. They also will choose successors to Tom Udall in the U.S. Senate and Ben Ray Luján in the U.S. House.

Udall is retiring, and Luján is running for Udall’s seat.

The 2nd Congressional District – a traditionally Republican seat now held by Democrat Xochitl Torres Small – has emerged as one of the most closely watched contests in the country, and two Journal Polls have shown an incredibly close race. Torres Small faces Republican Yvette Herrell in a rematch of their 2018 campaign.

Every seat in the Legislature is also on the ballot. Seven incumbent state senators – one-sixth of the whole chamber – lost their re-election bids in the June primary.

A series of judicial, county and other races are also on the ballot, in addition to constitutional amendments and bond issues.

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