Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – No one describes it as exciting.
But counties throughout New Mexico invite political party leaders and others before each statewide election to watch as they test the accuracy of their voting machines.
And after Election Day every other year, an accounting firm oversees hand tallies to verify the machines produced accurate results.
“It matches – it always does,” Lea County Clerk Keith Manes, a Republican, said of the post-election audit.
All that testing is part of a system intended to deliver election results beyond reproach.
But the reputation of New Mexico’s tabulation machines is under assault this year as voters head into a contentious campaign season featuring races for governor, attorney general and secretary of state.
A Republican-dominated county commission in southern New Mexico initially refused to certify the primary election results last month, citing doubt about the voting machines and casting aside assurances from the Republican county clerk who oversaw the election. The commission wanted a hand tally instead.
Also this summer, the GOP candidate for secretary of state – New Mexico’s chief elections officer – encouraged county commissioners to insist on a hand count before certifying election results.
The state’s post-election audits, however, suggest a hand tally would produce strikingly similar results to the counts produced by tabulation machines.
An audit in 2020 by Robert J. Rivera, a certified public accountant, calculated error rates close to one-tenth of 1 percentage point, sometimes less, for the results he tested with hand tallies.
And it isn’t clear the machines – rather than the humans – were responsible for the small difference in totals.
“I have spent a huge amount of time watching people count votes, and it’s actually really hard to do it by hand,” said Lonna Atkeson, an election administration expert for the MIT Election Data and Science Lab and professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico. “There’s a lot of good evidence that human beings are not as good.”
The machine errors she has encountered, Atkeson said, tended to be random and unbiased – stuck ballots and the like where the problems don’t favor or harm any particular candidate on the whole.
Theodore Allen, a professor of integrated systems and engineering at Ohio State University, said Dominion voting machines – the kind used in New Mexico – have been scrutinized by experts across the country.
“If the machines are applied properly and with a paper trail option,” he told the Journal, “trust in the results should be high.”
‘No question’ Biden won
Debate over the accuracy of the Dominion machines – fueled by unsubstantiated conspiracy theories – shook up the usually sedate practice of certifying election results this summer.
The all-Republican Otero County Commission – one of the members is Couy Griffin, a founder of Cowboys for Trump – initially refused to certify the June 7 primary election results. The Republican county clerk, in turn, maintained the election was conducted without problems.
The commission later certified the results – with Griffin in dissent – after the state Supreme Court issued an order.
Other Republicans have also cast doubt on New Mexico’s election results despite the systems in place to catch errors.
In a Facebook post, Republican secretary of state candidate Audrey Trujillo, for example, urged county commissioners in June to refuse to certify results until a hand tally was done. The Journal wasn’t able to reach her for comment. Trujillo’s Facebook account also shared video of her appearing for a video interview with Steve Bannon – who served as a strategist under Donald Trump – in which she questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s 2020 victory in New Mexico.
Biden won the state by about 99,720 votes, or roughly 11 percentage points. The Trump campaign in 2020 voluntarily dismissed its own lawsuit questioning the results.
“Somebody asked me, ‘How do you know Trump won New Mexico?'” Trujillo said on the video. “And I’m, like, we didn’t see Biden signs anywhere. We saw Trump signs. We saw huge convoys. We had so many people that were so excited to see Trump continue in his presidency.”
Democrats have won the state’s electoral votes in four consecutive presidential elections, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in New Mexico and no evidence of fraud on the scale needed to change an election outcome has surfaced.
Atkeson, a former director of the UNM Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy, said it’s clear Biden, not Trump, legitimately won New Mexico.
“Absolutely, he won,” she said. “There’s just no question.”
Even so, Republicans in New Mexico signed a document intended to deliver the state’s five electoral votes to Trump “on the understanding that it might later be determined that we are the duly elected and qualified Electors for President and Vice President of the United States of America from the State of New Mexico.”
State Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, referred the matter to federal law enforcement.
New Mexico’s push to build confidence in the election system begins long before voters show up.
By law, counties in New Mexico invite political party chairpersons to watch as they certify the accuracy of voting machines before an election. Members of the public can attend, too.
A stack of test ballots is fed through each machine. After the voting machines show they accurately tabulate the ballots, the tabulators are sealed and sent to polling locations.
It doesn’t draw a crowd.
“It’s usually just my staff,” Manes, the Lea County clerk, said. “Nobody shows up.”
He said he hopes more people will attend this year, given the increased interest in New Mexico’s voting systems.
Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said the machine certification “is a bit like watching paint dry.”
But it’s designed, she said, to give voters a look at the steps taken to safeguard elections.
“These processes to make sure everything is accurate, they’re not done in a vacuum,” Toulouse Oliver said in an interview. “They’re public, transparent processes.”
Even after election results are certified, New Mexico tests the accuracy of its count.
An independent accounting firm oversees an audit after each general election designed to catch mistakes by voting machines.
Precincts are selected at random in certain races, including top-of-the-ballot races like president and governor, and employees in county clerks’ offices are directed to conduct a hand tally, which is then checked against the official result generated by the voting machines.
The hand and machine tallies from 2020 show almost no difference for the precincts tested.
In the presidential race, for example, the machine tally had Biden winning the six precincts tested by 21.67 percentage points while the hand tally showed he won by 21.54 percentage points – an error rate of 0.13 percentage points, or just a fraction of 1 percentage point.
The audit also examined the races for U.S. Senate, the 2nd Congressional District and an Appeals Court slot – all of which had similarly small error rates. The congressional election, for example, had a miniscule error rate of 0.002 percentage points.
The small discrepancies, meanwhile, aren’t necessarily the fault of the machines.
The 2020 report by accountant Robert Rivera said the differences appear to be based on errors in the hand count and similar mistakes. In any case, he said no further testing was required.
Despite the steps designed to produce accurate results, it’s clear New Mexico’s vote tabulation machines are in for some extra scrutiny this year.
Dominion voting system, like those used in New Mexico, have been targeted by far-right conspiracy theories throughout the country, such as unsubstantiated claims the machines are vulnerable to internet manipulation. Election officials in New Mexico say the machines aren’t connected to the internet.
Just east of Albuquerque, the Torrance County Commission plans a hand tally of its primary election results this summer. The commission certified the results last month amid heckling from the audience.
County Commission Chairman Ryan Schwebach, a Republican, said the hand tally this summer won’t change the official results.
It’s simply intended to address community concerns over the voting machines.
“I’m not accusing anybody of anything,” Schwebach said, “but I’ve seen enough to know there are questions that need to be answered to ensure voter confidence.”
He said he understands New Mexico has a system of checks in place already. But he isn’t convinced the testing and audits would catch every possible error.
“We have to have voter confidence,” Schwebach said. “I’ve never seen anything like this – 90% of the people I ask, they are not 100% confident.”
As for the people carrying out the elections – a mix of Republicans and Democrats – they say the voting system is already robust.
“I have confidence in the whole system the way it’s done. … There’s so many checks and balances along the way,” Manes of Lea County said.
Toulouse Oliver said there’s no reason to doubt the voting machines.
New Mexico’s “system of ‘Let’s test them before, let’s conduct the election, and then let’s double check them after’ is the gold standard for ensuring accuracy,” she said.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, said the state’s automatic recounts, which are required in close elections, also demonstrate the accuracy of the machines. For recounts, every ballot again goes through a voting machine to check the result.
“In the history of the automatic recounts,” Ivey-Soto said, “we’ve never had the outcome of a race change.”
The state’s election machinery, meanwhile, is about to whir to life again. Early and absentee voting begins Oct. 11, and New Mexico’s vote tabulators will undergo preelection testing a few weeks before that.