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Rural NM: Higher voter turnout at fewer polling sites

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The 2020 general election proved unique for many reasons, especially for those living in New Mexico’s most rural areas.

Senate Bill 4, passed during the 2020 special legislative session, sought to ease the process of voting and address issues that arose during primary elections in June, most of which stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Part of that was requiring each polling site to have internet connectivity. Those that had none – almost all of which were rural communities – were closed and became “all-mail” precincts.

In total, the number of all-mail precincts rose 140% to 36 across the state upon the bill’s passage, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

It’s unclear what kind of impact the new rule had on Election Day, but voting numbers show a large turnout in all-mail precincts. In fact, they often exceeded turnouts in larger communities in their counties.

Voting increased across the state during the 2020 general election, boosted by the large number of absentee ballots and early votes.

“A lot of (residents) decided to early vote instead of using the ballot that was mailed to them,” San Miguel County Clerk Geraldine Gutierrez said of all-mail precincts. “This has been the biggest turnout I’ve ever seen.”

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, was the driving force behind Senate Bill 4 and said the internet requirement helps keep elections secure and free of fraud at voting convenience centers (VCC), which allow voters to cast a ballot at any location within their county.

“You just want to make sure that you don’t have somebody that goes to the convention center to vote, and then gets in the car and drives over to the fairgrounds,” Ivey-Soto said. “You need to have that data connectivity in order to be able to make that happen.”

Ivey-Soto said the primary elections in June saw voters drive to polling places they couldn’t vote at. When a precinct has no internet connection, only those registered within that specific precinct can vote there, an issue solved with internet-connected VCCs.

As a result of Senate Bill 4, multiple counties had to close precincts in their most rural areas, especially in northern New Mexico – Rio Arriba County had nine all-mail precincts, while San Miguel County had eight.

Rio Arriba Elections Bureau Chief Michele Jordan told the Journal that residents in these precincts were upset about polling places closing in their areas.

“They got very upset,” Jordan said. “They think we did this because we wanted to.”

She said many voters who didn’t want to cast their ballot by mail chose to drive to vote in-person instead, which could take multiple hours each way.

Broadband and access to internet have been key issues since the start of the pandemic, with more New Mexicans working and going to school online, and needing reliable internet to do so. Studies released by the state show rural communities struggle to access those resources.

Ivey-Soto said all-mail precincts are another example of the technological divide between some New Mexican communities.

“You’ve got to have something to transmit that data in a reliable way,” he said.

Currently, the internet requirement is set to expire at the end of the calendar year, as is much of Senate Bill 4. Mario Jimenez, campaigns director for Common Cause, said he believes the requirement should be extended into more permanent law because it helps safeguard the integrity of elections. Jimenez also stressed that mail-in voting is a secure system.

Ivey-Soto said he will advocate for the rule to be reinstated during the next legislative session.

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