Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Razor-thin margins in six primary races triggered New Mexico’s automatic recount law this summer.
As candidates and attorneys watched, the recounts put the state’s Dominion vote-tabulation machines to another public test, with election workers feeding paper ballots through them a second time.
The outcome didn’t change in any race. Five of the six recounts produced exactly the same results, in fact, and the winner’s margin changed by just one vote – out of almost 1,600 cast – in the other.
“The machines don’t lie,” said George A. Trujillo, who won the Democratic nomination in a Mora County Commission race by just five votes.
Verification of the official results comes as some New Mexico counties cast doubt on the state’s voting machines and push for hand tallies instead – a process election officials and others say would actually be less accurate.
New Mexico adopted its automatic-recount procedure in 2008. Recounts are required when the official canvass shows the outcome within a fraction of 1 percentage point for larger races or within a full percentage point for county-level contests or smaller.
No automatic recount has ever changed the winner of a race.
The results of this year’s primary triggered six automatic recounts – in Catron, Colfax, Mora, Otero, Rio Arriba and Valencia counties – covering about 9,100 ballots.
The only change was three ballots added to the Otero County total, changing the winning candidate’s margin by just one vote. No candidate vote total changed in any other race.
Alex Curtas, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections in New Mexico, said the Otero County change involved the hand tally of a few votes, not something tied to the Dominion tabulation machines.
In every election, he said, some ballots are tallied by hand – if there’s, say, a paper jam or a provisional ballot that can be counted only after determining the voter was qualified to cast it.
In this case, election workers reviewing a discrepancy in the hand tallying from primary election day determined that three additional votes were valid and should be added to the total.
The recount had Amy Barela defeating G.B. Oliver III by 10 votes, rather than 11, for the Republican nomination in a race for the Otero County Commission.
“Automatic recounts like the one that just happened for the primary,” Curtas said, “they underscore the accuracy of the vote-counting in New Mexico.”
Skeptics aren’t necessarily convinced.
In Mora County, a three-way race for the County Commission was decided by just five votes – a result confirmed by the automatic recount. Trujillo, a retired maintenance supervisor, defeated Trinnie Cordova, a laborer, by just 0.4 percentage points, or 41.2% to 40.8%.
Cordova said he still has doubts about the accuracy. In an interview, he said he wanted to know whether an unusual number of absentee ballots had gone to any one address and been filled out by the same person.
Mora County Clerk Carlos J. Arellano said he found no evidence of anything suspicious.
The most ballots sent to an address, he said, was nine, and it’s a well-established family with three generations of adults.
The wildfires in northern New Mexico this spring and summer, Arellano said, disrupted life for many voters, and turnout was low, making it all the more likely a race would be decided by just a few ballots.
But he said he’s confident in the results.
The ballot boxes, Arellano said, were locked after the election but reopened for the automatic recount. Cordova and his attorney were on hand to watch.
Election workers unlocked the boxes, tested the machines and fed the ballots through them to produce a new vote tally. Trujillo and Cordova each had the same vote total as recorded in the official canvass.
“It was completely accurate,” Arellano said.
Trujillo, the winner, said he wasn’t nervous.
“I knew it wasn’t going to change,” he said. “I have that faith in the system.”
In Catron County, Republican Susan E. Griffin won a five-way race for her party’s nomination as magistrate judge by eight votes.
She said she and her closest competitor, John Cliff Snyder, watched the recount together.
“Not one single vote changed,” Griffin said. “It was exactly the same.”
Griffin said she was impressed by the work of the Catron County clerk’s office and its staff.
But the recount doesn’t change her opinion on the accuracy of vote totals outside her rural county in western New Mexico.
“I know how meticulous my county clerk is,” Griffin said. “I don’t have that kind of confidence all over the state.”
Boosting confidence in New Mexico’s election system is a key goal of county clerks heading into the Nov. 8 general election. Voters will be deciding races for governor, attorney general, Congress and the state Legislature, in addition to local offices.
In New Mexico, voters mark paper ballots and feed them into a tabulation machine, which records the votes in each race.
The accuracy of the tabulation machines is tested in public before each election.
After every general election, New Mexico hires an independent auditing firm to oversee hand tallies in precincts selected at random.
The 2020 post-election audit calculated error rates close to one-tenth of 1 percentage point. The discrepancy appeared to be based on errors in the hand count, not a problem with the voting machines, according to the audit report.