Rules for ballot drop boxes draw GOP scrutiny

Miguel Rodriguez, with the Santa Fe County Clerk’s Office, puts absentee ballots into a box outside the Santa Fe County Administration Building Thursday May 28, 2020. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic he didn’t allow people without gloves to touch the box. Some legislators want to make ballot drop boxes available during all elections. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With a recent surge in absentee voting, ballot drop boxes are set to become a permanent part of New Mexico’s electoral landscape, under rules proposed by Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s office.

The drop boxes, also known as “secured containers,” sparked a GOP court challenge after being implemented on a limited scale during the 2020 election cycle and have gotten a wary reception from many New Mexicans who have submitted comments on the proposed rules.

But state Bureau of Elections Director Kari Fresquez said the drop boxes are a safe and convenient way for voters to cast their absentee ballots and should be in place in time for local elections this fall.

“They provide a way for voters to return their absentee ballot without it being exposed to anyone except elections officials,” Fresquez told the Journal when asked about vote fraud concerns.

She also said security requirements – including mandatory video surveillance cameras, bolting drop boxes to the ground and keeping them locked at all times – are included in the proposed rules to deter any potential voting shenanigans.

A public hearing on the proposed rules was held Thursday at the Roundhouse, drawing about a dozen people to offer comment. About 90 public comments had already been submitted in advance of the meeting.

Opponents include the state Republican Party.

In a written statement Thursday, Tina Dziuk, a member of the party’s Election Integrity Committee, questioned the legality of the proposed rules and whether the drop boxes would be properly monitored.

Expanding the use of drop boxes, she said, creates more opportunity for fraud.

“It is unlikely that video surveillance for these drop boxes will be adequately monitored as county clerks lack the resources for 24-hour monitoring of video cameras,” Dziuk said.

Under a 2019 state law, ballot drop boxes can be installed outside traditional polling places, although county clerks are required to publicly disclose such locations in advance and adhere to strict security guidelines.

However, the rules necessary to implement the law have taken two years to craft, in large part because the Legislature did not immediately appropriate funds necessary to obtain the ballot boxes and surveillance cameras, Fresquez said.

With a mix of federal and state dollars now in place, she said the Secretary of State’s Office would pay for the equipment to ensure a uniform statewide system.

“These boxes are going to be the same whether you’re in a northern county or a southern county,” Fresquez said.

The proposed rules direct county clerks to provide a minimum number of secured drop boxes based on a voter population formula set by the Secretary of State’s Office but do not feature an in-person monitoring requirement.

In addition, only county clerks or full-time deputy county clerks would be allowed to retrieve ballots from the drop boxes.

During last year’s election that was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, the secretary of state urged county clerks to offer absentee ballot drop boxes to voters but the ballot containers were required to be continually supervised under temporary guidelines.

That prompted a New Mexico Republican Party lawsuit that argued ballot drop boxes in two largely Democratic counties had either been left unattended or not properly monitored by poll workers.

The suit was eventually dismissed after county clerks in the two counties – Taos and Guadalupe – agreed to make changes.

While not providing any proof of it actually happening, the Republican Party said such practices leave open the possibility of ballots being stolen, damaged or destroyed – or that large amounts of improperly harvested ballots could be dropped off undetected.

Since 2006, New Mexico has used a paper ballot system that requires most voters – but not those voting via absentee ballot – to manually mark ballots and feed them into electronic vote tabulating machines.

State law also requires voters to submit their own ballot, though direct family members and legal guardians are also authorized to do so.

Of the roughly 928,000 voters who cast ballots in the November 2020 general election, a total of 328,792 voters – or roughly 35.4% – cast absentee ballots. That represented a much higher proportion than in past election cycles, though it’s unclear how many of those ballots were deposited in drop boxes.

Dan McKay of the Journal Capitol Bureau contributed to this article.

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