NM officials evaluate options for protecting election staff

Workers scan absentee ballots to verify them with the county clerk’s list. They were processing more than 3,000 absentee ballots at a Rio Arriba County building in Tierra Amarilla in October 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver says she faced so many threats last year that she left home for weeks after the 2020 election.

A county clerk in southern New Mexico, meanwhile, said she received racist mail, and one of her staffers was followed at night by a man who slipped into the clerk’s office without permission.

The incidents are resurfacing now as state legislators and others begin to evaluate how to improve security for election officials and the ordinary New Mexicans who agree to help operate the polls each election cycle.

One lawmaker this week floated the idea of passing a law specifically prohibiting threats against election workers, similar to the statute covering assault or battery on sports referees.

Others aren’t sure a legislative solution is appropriate.

In any case, election officials in parts of New Mexico reported an unusual amount of hostility last year – amid false claims of widespread election fraud – and they are preparing for more of it in future elections.

Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat and the state’s chief elections officer, is part of a national council working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on how to safeguard the country’s elections and the people who carry them out.

She may ask for funding or propose other ideas to the Legislature, she said, based on the recommendations that come out of the coordinating council’s work.

“I don’t want this concern to discourage people who are thinking about working at the polls,” Toulouse Oliver said in an interview Tuesday. “The truth of the matter is, your county and state election officials and federal government are taking this very seriously and doing everything possible to keep folks safe.”

Doña Ana County Clerk Amanda López Askin said racist and racially charged remarks arrived by mail last year. In phone calls, people told her she was a thief and a crook who would be going to jail.

But her primary concern, López Askin said, is the way some people treated frontline election workers and county staff. Poll challengers – who are permitted to observe the election process on behalf of political parties or outside groups – grew particularly aggressive last year, she said.

One temporary worker was teary-eyed after a barrage of litigation threats and criticism.

“They just want to do their job, do a good job and go home,” López Askin said of election officials. “The hostility they’ve dealt with has been deeply discouraging and disappointing.”

In one instance, a man followed a female Doña Ana County staff member at night as she transported absentee ballots back to the office. The man darted into the building behind her as the door was closing, temporarily gaining access to a restricted area.

“Certainly, that was something that made everyone feel uncomfortable and likely unsafe,” said Lindsey Bachman, chief deputy clerk in Doña Ana County.

But some clerks reported nothing that alarming.

Eddy County Clerk Darlene Rosprim said her county didn’t “experience any harassment and/or threats to our election workers during the 2020 election. It was a busy election with a great turnout that went smoothly in Eddy County.”

Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover, who oversees elections in New Mexico’s most-populous county, said passions boiled over a few times last year, but she isn’t sure a legislative solution would help.

Workers process more than 3,000 absentee ballots at a Rio Arriba County building in Tierra Amarilla in October 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Election workers, she said, endured some heckling as they transported absentee ballots. But Albuquerque police responded quickly when needed, Stover said.

“The election,” she said, “was just so full of passion.”

Toulouse Oliver said she received death threats over email, and her staff received threatening calls at work.

But she left her Santa Fe residence late last year when her photo, home address and other personal information showed up on a website called “Enemies of the People.” She was among about 40 people, she said, on the website’s hit list, which included targets over the officials’ photos.

“There was about a five-week period – almost six weeks – where I had to, for lack of better term, go into hiding and take a lot of personal safety precautions,” Toulouse Oliver said. “And I didn’t have it anywhere near as bad as some of my colleagues.”

The FBI later linked Iran to the online threats, according to the Washington Post.

Toulouse Oliver said she and her family went home occasionally but largely stayed elsewhere in New Mexico for a few weeks in December and January, until well after the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, when supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the building.

State Police Lt. Mark Soriano told the Journal in May that his agency had provided extra security for Toulouse Oliver and other elected officials.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which often handles election legislation, said New Mexico may want to establish a criminal statute specifically dealing with threats against election workers.

Similar laws already prohibit assault or battery on school employees, health care workers and sports officials.

People who choose to run for office are accustomed to a certain level of harsh criticism, Ivey-Soto said, but residents who agree to work a 14-hour day to operate a polling place are a different matter.

“The rank-and-file staff, they don’t sign up for this,” he said.

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