June 3, 2020

Santa Fe, Taos counties need more time to count votes amid flood of absentee ballots

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Most of the state completed their tallies of ballots, including absentee ballots, but election officials in Taos County and Santa Fe County received permission from district courts to extend the time needed to finish tallying absentee ballots.

The two counties, like many others, received an unprecedented number of absentee ballots for a primary election, and numbers that even dwarfed high-turnout general elections in the past.

It isn’t clear how many votes were cast by absentee ballots, but as of 5 p.m. on Election Day, county clerks had received more than 246,000 absentee ballots. In the 2016 primary, county clerks statewide received 23,066.

Santa Fe County on its own received more than the statewide total in the 2016 primary.

Absentee ballots take more time to count than regular ballots because the absentee voter board must work to verify the name on each ballot, as well as the outer and inner envelopes of each ballot, before tabulation. The process is done by an absentee voter precinct board in each county.

New Mexico received an unprecedented number of absentee ballots and election officials in six counties could not complete their count on Tuesday night or in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

In a court filing, an attorney for Taos County said one member of the county’s absentee ballot precinct “simply left his duties, claiming that it was too stressful” and around 7 p.m. on Election Day. The filing said between 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., the remainder of the board “left without completing their duties, claiming that they did not realize how much work was involved, that they were tired and could not go on.”

The county continued work at 8 a.m., with a new absentee ballot precinct board, but was unable to complete their work.

The filing said Taos County received over 6,500 absentee ballots back from voters. The previous highest amount of absentee votes in a primary election in Taos County was 315 in 2008.

Taos County still has approximately 1,500 ballots left to count.

A judge in Santa Fe approved that county’s proposal as well.

1st Judicial District Court Judge T. Glenn Ellington said that it “is reasonably explainable by the number of absentee ballots cast in the 2020 Primary Election and is therefore caused by forces beyond the control of the Absentee Voter Election Board.”

In 2008, Santa Fe County received 1,588 absentee ballots. This year, the county received nearly 30,000 absentee ballots.

Santa Fe County still has approximately 5,000 ballots left to process.

Counties received an unprecedented number of absentee ballots because of COVID-19. The state Supreme Court ordered the Secretary of State to send absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters—only voters in major parties can participate in primary elections—to help social distancing.

The Secretary of State and most county clerks had asked that they be able to send mail-in ballots to each eligible voter, which would have resulted in fewer steps. 

The court said it was not in their power to do so, so instead ordered the ballot application step. 

Many voters said they received their absentee ballots after lengthy delays. Only ballots received by county clerks by 7 p.m. on Tuesday were eligible to be counted. As such, those in the final days were encouraged to drop off their absentee ballots at voting locations on Election Day if they had not been mailed in time.

Update: Added the approximate number of remaining ballots.