October 17, 2018

Doña Ana County’s early vote surge

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Early voting in one key southern New Mexico county is not only outpacing past years, it is so far beating out all other counties in the state.

Through the end of Monday, 4,304 Doña Ana County voters already cast their ballots either by early in-person voting or by returning absentee ballots.

And Democrats are happy, as 56.9 percent of those voters are Democrats. In 2016, 50.28 percent of early and absentee voters were Democrats.

Statewide, 22,702 voters have already cast ballots. Of those, 55.6 percent are Democrats, compared to 32.7 percent Republicans.

While Democrats in the left-leaning stronghold of the conservative congressional district are enthusiastic, at least one Republican Party official is skeptical of the political process and those in charge of elections in the county.

Doña Ana County is home to less than 10 percent of all registered voters, but nearly 20 percent of the earliest voters have come from the southern New Mexico county that’s the home of Las Cruces, the state’s second-most-populous city.

It is one of the few areas where Democrats can consistently win elections in the district, which is larger than the state of Pennsylvania and covers the southern portion of the state.

Members of both Democratic and Republican parties told NM Political Report that a number of things have come together to create the situation of high turnout, especially among Democrats, in the county.

More volunteers, higher enthusiasm among Democrats

Nayomi Valdez, the director of the New Mexico Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign in the 2nd Congressional District, says the rush to the polls reflects organizing efforts by the Democratic Party and enthusiasm around the congressional race between Democrat Xochitl Torres Small and Republican Yvette Herrell as they battle for a seat held by Republican Rep. Steve Pearce for 14 of the last 16 years.

Valdez says the Democratic Party has more volunteers than they did in the 2016 election. While 2016 was a presidential election, New Mexico was not a battleground state that year.

“Definitely more volunteers,” she said. “It’s in everybody’s faces what is really going on and that we have the ability to take control of [the political process] in a way.”

Pundits consider the 2nd Congressional District race is a “toss-up” election, and one place Democrats can pick up a seat as the party seeks to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Valdez believes this election has also drawn more younger voters, who she said tend to vote for liberal candidates and issues.

“We’ve had a huge presence on the campus [of NMSU] with voter registration and going to high schools and things like that,” she said, noting there is no hard data on the age of voters.

She said the party has tried to educate younger voters about this election and what is needed to vote—and how they can help others to vote early as well.

“It’s been really interesting, just folks walking in off the street [into campaign offices] wanting to know how they can help,” Valdez said.

There are other groups organizing voters as well.

NM Comunidades en Acción y de Fé (CAFé), a progressive advocacy group, tweeted Tuesday about their organizing efforts in the area.

“This election cycle, we launched a campaign to engage thousands in low income and working class neighborhoods to mobilize unlikely and underrepresented voters to get them to the polls for the 2018 General Election through traditional organizing tactics,” they wrote. “Instead of canvassing, we had leaders in their communities engage people and create a larger network of leaders to encourage others to get out the vote and the issues they care about the most that affect them.”

Meanwhile, the county’s top Republican official says GOP voters aren’t turning out early because they don’t trust the county clerk’s office.

Lack of faith in the system from Republicans

Doña Ana County Republican Party Chair Betty Bishop says one reason why Democrats are outstripping Republicans in the early votes is that Republicans and decline-to-state voters do not have faith in the county clerk’s office to accurately count early votes.

“The category that I’d put that office in is ‘sketchy-at-best,’” she told NM Political Report.

She cited NMPolitics.net’s Heath Haussamen, who wrote of former county clerk Rita Torres in 2006, “as far back as Torres’ first term as clerk, the office has been plagued by elections controversy. The 2000 and 2004 elections were disastrous.”

Bishop listed scandals the office has faced going back over a decade, from allegations that the clerk’s office has mishandled voter registrations to a 2016 conviction for ID theft of a clerk’s office employee in 2016.

“Whether it’s been intentional or unintentional, the Democrats that have run the county clerk’s office for decades have created situations where they suppress the Republican vote,” Bishop said. “They won’t go early and they won’t vote absentee, they don’t trust the system, they don’t trust that office.”

She also noted there is only one early voting location open until early voting expands Saturday, in Las Cruces, and that people who live outside the city likely would not “make a special trip” to vote early.

Bishop also said that Democrats in the county shouldn’t be expected to vote along party lines. She pointed to Steve Pearce’s time in Congress as proof that likely non-Republicans would back the party.

A long way to go

Still, even these impressive numbers are smaller than what the final vote tally will be, even for just early voting. In 2014, nearly 20,000 voters in the county voted early or absentee before Election Day. In 2016, a presidential year with much higher turnout, 43,500 voters cast ballots before Election Day.

Until this Saturday, when early voting expands, early voting only takes places in county clerks’ offices around the state.

There are not daily numbers available to compare to this point in past elections. But before early voting expansion in 2016, over 9,000 voters cast ballots.

Absentee votes will also begin to come in more frequently, as voters send them in the mail.

Voters in other counties in the district are also coming out to vote. In Otero County, a deeply-Republican county that is home of Yvette Herrell, 1,422 voters have cast ballots, nearly 60 percent of whom are Republicans.