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Santa Fe County’s next clerk embraces technology

Katharine Clark, the newly elected Santa Fe County clerk, is seen here outside the Santa Fe County Administration Building. Clark plans to embrace advancements in technology to help speed up future voting processes. She is also advocating for increased early voting hours, as well as automatic and same-day voter registration. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

In the wake of the 2020 election season, voters will likely be using more mail-in ballots in future elections and advancements in technology will be implemented to speed up the process and track ballots. And that’s something incoming Santa Fe County Clerk Katharine Clark will embrace. After winning the Democratic Party primary in June, Clark was uncontested in the general election. She’ll take over as Santa Fe County clerk on Jan. 1, replacing Geraldine Salazar, who was ineligible to run for reelection due to term limits.

Clark, who calls herself a “data nerd,” got her undergraduate neuroscience degree from University of California-Berkeley and a master’s in business administration with an emphasis on human resources and strategic management from the University of New Mexico. Before running for office, she ran her own political consulting business, helping state Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard of White Rock and state Rep. Christine Chandler of Los Alamos win their seats.

After winning the primary, Clark said she just tried to stay out of the way for the general election.

“I won the primary and was just kind of trying to stay out of the hair of the current clerk,” Clark said. “And I know there was a lot of interest in making sure all the absentee ballots came in quickly because of the lessons learned from the primary.”

She said the primary election was a learning experience for the clerk’s office, with so many absentee and early votes cast, and there was clearly a need to speed up the process. Salazar’s office didn’t post final numbers in some races until four days after the election.

Since the primary, the office has obtained new adjudication systems that help verify results from its vendors.

The clerk’s office tested it in a prior election to make sure it would work for the general election. The new system worked well and absentee adjudication board members were actually waiting for ballots during the early counts.

The system also worked without a glitch during the Nov. 3 election. This time, all the votes were counted by midnight.

Presiding Judge Paul D’Arcy said the 29 workers stationed at the Santa Fe Convention Center were waiting for ballots to come in from the precincts and there wasn’t a counting backlog on election night. For the primary election, there were only 13 workers.

“We are very well off compared to the primary. The primary was a disaster for most of the absentee (ballots),” he said. “In our case, we prepared for that with the new protocol and so on.”

D’Arcy said the office started processing ballots two weeks before Election Day.

The traditional process for counting ballots had been matching the envelopes to the voter registration files – which meant having to alphabetize the envelopes. That was labor-intensive and time-consuming, D’Arcy said.

This time, the poll workers had hand scanners, which significantly decreased the ballot bottleneck and moved the count along.

It’s the use of this type of new technology that Clark hopes to incorporate more when she takes office.

“We learned in business school that feedback’s always good because it means that you’re learning something,” Clark said. “And I think (Salazar) and her team were really smart, and figured out what were the pain points and how to solve them.”

As more people vote by mail, it’s critical to use ballot-tracking technology so people know their ballot arrived at the clerk’s office, she said.

Tracking can be done through a phone app that can tell people where their ballot is at any time and text them when it arrives at the office. The app could also tell people if there was a problem with a ballot that needed to be fixed.

Clark said there are grants available that would pay for this type of technology, or vendors can develop systems in partnership with local clerks.

This could benefit those people who requested an absentee ballot, but never received it.

The Journal spoke with a few people at polling places who said they had to vote in person due to missing absentee ballots.

To help make sure everyone gets a ballot, Clark said she’d like to use the county assessor’s database for more accurate voter addresses. People sometimes forget to update their address and ballots get sent to the wrong location.

Clark said some voter registration addresses, especially in rural areas, might not be accurate.

“I personally canvass areas where the address, the actual voter address, is third house from the old church,” she said.

She’s also a fan of increasing transparency around voting. On Election Day, she said she was a bit frustrated with the Secretary of State’s website because she had difficulty figuring out how many ballots were left to be counted.

To fix this, she would like to see more in-depth voting dashboards that have sections for early voting, absentee votes and Election Day votes.

“I’m considering putting a camera in the counting room, so everyone can just log in and see – to make sure there’s nothing nefarious going on,” Clark said. “Those are easy technology ways of making sure that people can be engaged in the voting process to be assured that we’re not trying to hide anything, and that everyone’s vote is going to count.”

At the Election Day polls, most presiding judges reported a smooth vote with no issues.

At the Christian Life Church polling location, presiding judge Diane Quintana said there were a few issues, but workers were able to reconcile them.

Anne Wrinkle, a volunteer with Election Protection, a national nonpartisan group that works to defend peoples’ right to vote, said she didn’t know of any issues in Santa Fe County.

In addition to new technology, Clark said she’s advocating for increased early voting hours, automatic voter registration and same-day voter registration. New Mexico has approved same-day voter registration, which will take effect November 2021.

She said one way to increase voter registration is to allow 16-year-olds who apply for a driver’s permit to check a box that will automatically register them to vote when they turn 18. It’s also happening when people move into the state to get a driver’s license, as they’re prompted to register to vote.

“We always talk about democracy, but democracy doesn’t work unless government is representative,” Clark said. “The higher the turnout, the more representative that government is.”

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