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Our view: Court provides some assurance ’12 election mess won’t be repeated

To its credit, the Sandoval County Commission took steps last year to avoid future election debacles like the one that occurred in Rio Rancho in November 2012, when many city voters were left standing in line for hours and some candidates claimed it effectively led to losses in their party.

An order issued by federal District Judge William P. Johnson just over a week ago provides legal assurance the county will continue to follow through.

Johnson ruled in favor of three Republicans, including two local candidates, who filed a lawsuit in the wake of the 2012 general election, claiming the then-Sandoval County clerk and elections director deprived voters of the chance to cast ballots and led to Republican losses to Democrats.

The judge granted a preliminary injunction ordering the county clerk’s office and bureau of elections to comply with a resolution passed by the commission last October that affected the number of voting machines and polling places, as well as their distribution, in Rio Rancho.

The commission measure established 17 voting convenience centers in Rio Rancho versus only five sites in 2012. It also greatly increased the number of voting machines.

Johnson’s order came with an explicit and, in our minds, very serious directive: The county “no longer has the discretion to change the location or amount of polling centers without an order approving such change by a state district judge.”

It remains to be seen how that plays out down the road when the county attempts to make even minor changes — as it did recently, before Johnson’s order, in replacing Sabana Grande Recreation Center with Calvary Chapel as a vote center. A literal interpretation of the order suggests the county would have had to go to court for approval of a change even that slight, which obviously could become burdensome.

The ruling, however, as the plaintiffs’ attorney Justine Fox-Young observed, “sends the Sandoval County clerk the critical message that the mistakes of 2012 must never be repeated.”

In that regard, we agree completely. No one knows for sure how many voters opted to go home that night instead of waiting hours to cast a ballot. In these times when getting voters to the polls is tough enough, they don’t need the impediments of a poorly planned election.

To be sure, the June 3 primary, with the expanded voting centers and number of voting machines, generally ran problem-free under the guidance of County Clerk Eileen Garbagni, who was elected in that 2012 election.

We hope it stays that way — we interpret the court ruling to mean it must.