Wednesday, November 8, 2006
Despite Shortage of Ballots and Other Problems, Turnout Expected to Top 60 Percent
By Dan McKay and Trip Jennings
Journal Staff Writers
New Mexico's switch to paper ballots stumbled to a rocky start Tuesday as Bernalillo County's elections administrator acknowledged there may have been a violation of federal law.
Only two hours after polls opened Tuesday, two precincts ran out of paper ballots and some voters were turned away.
"We would assume there is an infraction that occurred," said Jaime Diaz, Bernalillo County's election administrator. "There were no ballots to be issued."
The state Republican Party late Tuesday backed off threatened legal action over the ballot shortages. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., in a tight race for re-election, called for federal observers to monitor the election.
The GOP late Tuesday was attempting to track down at least 25 voters who may have been turned away. The Republicans wanted to verify that they were later able to vote, Republican attorney Pat Rogers said.
Bernalillo County Clerk Mary Herrera said an election worker called voters who left their names, and they came back and voted.
At most locations in Bernalillo County, voting appeared to be going smoothly, with polls reporting brisk business but short waits. Still, some other problems surfaced:
Some polling sites ran out of pens, and others didn't have enough chairs.
At least one location opened an hour late.
There was some difficulty with machines that scan the ballots.
Herrera said at least 3,677 absentee votes would have to be tallied by hand, along with 642 early votes.
Some San Juan County voters had trouble Tuesday with special marking devices meant to make voting easy for minority language speakers and people with disabilities, said San Juan County Clerk Fran Hanhardt.
The AutoMARKs, as the machines are known, "wouldn't print on both sides of the ballots" at several precincts, Hanhardt said.
Voter turnout was expected to reach as high as 60 percent statewide in Tuesday's midterm elections.
At the two precincts shorted paper ballots one in the far Northeast Heights and the other on the West Side voters left in frustration after ballots ran out. Voters were unable to vote for about an hour at Precinct 603 near Tramway and Paseo del Norte, observers said. Precinct 57 at Painted Sky Elementary near Ladera and Unser also ran out of ballots.
The shortage hit Painted Sky Elementary at 8:30, and voters were told to wait or come back later, said Joe Loisel, the presiding judge. After a stack of about 800 new ballots arrived at about 10:30, officials began trading blame for the mix-up.
In the hour it took to get ballots to Precinct 603 at the Church of the Good Shepherd, at least 50 people left without voting, said Beverly Goodrum, who was standing in line with her husband.
She said other would-be voters were told not to park when they pulled into the voting site because there were no ballots.
"People in line and the polling people kept calling the County Clerk's Office, but no one answered," Goodrum said. "Everybody wanted to know who in the world was in charge."
Bernalillo County said the shortages were fixed within about 30 minutes.
Diaz said about 150 ballots had been sent to each of the affected precincts, even though each has around 2,000 registered voters.
The allocation of ballots for each precinct is determined by the Secretary of State's Office, a county spokeswoman said.
Diaz said he called state officials on Sunday to express concern that not enough ballots had been ordered for some precincts. He also contacted the printing company on Sunday and again on Tuesday to let the printer know he needed the ballots immediately.
"We had no official input as to the percentage of ballots that were ordered," Diaz said.
Herrera said late Tuesday that she had to order extra ballots for 27 other precincts. The ballots arrived in time to avoid shortages, she said.
Doña Ana County ran out of ballots at two polling sites, said county Elections Supervisor Lynn Ellins.
The clerk's office quickly ordered extra ballots printed, and voters did not have to wait for them to arrive, Ellins said.
Ray Baray, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office, said somehow a zero was dropped from the order for ballots in the two Bernalillo County precincts that ran out.
Precinct 603 at the Church of the Good Shepherd should have received 1,500 ballots instead of the 150 delivered, while Precinct 57 at Painted Sky Elementary should have received 1,700 instead of the 170 delivered.
"I know Mary is trying to levy the blame on this office," Baray said, referring to Herrera. "I really don't feel it is a mistake done by this agency."
Baray said the Bernalillo County Clerk's Office should have double-checked a roster of Election Day ballots needed for every precinct that the Secretary of State's Office produced in October. The agency sent the roster to county clerks to review for accuracy.
"I cannot imagine why someone didn't do a double check," he said.
The confusion and debate over who was to blame culminated in a bizarre news conference at the county voting warehouse Tuesday afternoon. After Diaz addressed reporters, John Wertheim, chairman of the state Democratic Party, and Rogers, the Republican attorney, stepped before the cameras.
Wertheim was allowed to speak briefly, but sheriff's deputies stepped in and ordered Wertheim, Rogers and reporters out of the warehouse before Rogers had a chance to speak. The news conference continued on the sidewalk outside, and Rogers and Wertheim took turns addressing reporters.
Rogers noted that federal law requires that people who show up to vote must be allowed to do so and that state law requires that emergency ballots be available.
"There's no excuse for this occurring," Rogers said.
State records show that 45 percent of the registered voters in Precinct 57 are Democrats and 37 percent are Republicans; in Precinct 603, 50 percent are Republicans and 31 percent are Democrats.
Wilson, locked in a tight race for re-election against Attorney General Patricia Madrid, blasted County Clerk Herrera for the shortage at precinct 603. Wilson said she won the precinct two years ago with 67 percent of the vote.
"There are more registered Republicans in this precinct than in any other precinct," Wilson said.
Donna Price, a poll worker with Precinct 537, which also voted at the Good Shepherd site, said people waited in line for more than an hour. She said a poll worker at precinct 603 called repeatedly for more ballots.
"It's not fair. It's just like cheating," Price said.
Diaz said it was taking from 10 to 40 minutes for voters to fill out a ballot, which in Bernalillo County had almost 60 items.
Diaz said prosecutors were investigating complaints that a news reporter was interfering with the voting process at one precinct short on ballots and encouraging people to leave and file complaints.
Journal staff writers Andrew Webb, Leann Holt, Rene Romo and Erica Cordova contributed to this report.