June 17, 2020

Secretary of state pushes for temporary automatic mail election

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver is advocating for legislation during this week’s special session that would extend the deadline for counting absentee ballots in the November general election and allow county clerks to automatically send ballots to all registered voters prior to Election Day, her office said.

At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Toulouse Oliver and a couple of dozen county clerks in the state had pushed for a mail-only primary election to protect poll workers and voters from risks of contracting the viral illness.

The state Supreme Court rejected the clerks’ request, however, saying the Legislature would have to approve a change in law to allow mass distribution of ballots by mail to voters who haven’t requested one.

Spokesman Alex Curtas said Friday the secretary of state still supports an emergency provision allowing ballots to be sent to voters without an application. She also backs other proposals that could streamline the general election, he added.

Toulouse Oliver has been speaking with state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who is drafting emergency election legislation to be considered during the special session.

The details of the legislation were still unclear, but Ivey-Soto said one thing was certain: The bill would expire Dec. 31, 2020.

“Nobody’s trying to use the special session to create policy for the future,” he said. “This is specific to this election, and the times that we’re in include a lot of uncertainty.”

Opening polls to the public during a pandemic posed concerns and required extra safety precautions. A record number of absentee ballots cast in the primary also created hiccups for county clerks. They hope to avoid repeating such problems — including a four-day vote count delay in Santa Fe County — in November.

Some of the measures they support would allow counting of absentee ballots that are postmarked on the deadline but do not arrive on that date; require county clerks to begin processing absentee ballots 14 days ahead of Election Day; and set a specific time to adjourn ballot counting on the night of the election so bleary-eyed election workers aren’t tallying votes until 3 a.m.

“It’s clear that in certain situations like a global pandemic, you do want some flexibility in how these procedures could be carried out,” Curtas said.

Mail delays, an unprecedented flood of absentee ballots — including many that came in at the last minute — and a dearth of poll workers all contributed to severe delays in having an unofficial vote count ready in Santa Fe and Taos counties. Both asked  judges for extensions.

Santa Fe County election workers did not finish counting absentee ballots until the Saturday following the primary election.

County Clerk Geraldine Salazar did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the legislation being drafted. The Taos County clerk and deputy clerk also did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Curtas said the biggest problem in Santa Fe and Taos boiled down to a severe lack of poll workers, which delayed processing of absentee ballots prior to June 2 and slowed things down on that day as well.

Sandoval County Clerk Eileen Garbagni said she had enough poll workers for the primary but was disconcerted by the long lines of people waiting at limited polling locations to cast their vote in person during a pandemic.

“People just went crazy going to all our sites,” she said. “We had long lines until 7, but we accommodated them … and everybody was happy.”

Doña Ana County Clerk Amanda Lopez, who had supported the petition asking the state Supreme Court to allow automatic voting by mail, said she still supports the concept and hopes lawmakers approve a measure allowing it in November.

Doña Ana County had roughly 13,000 absentee ballots flood in, and election officials worked 17 hours straight on June 2 before Lopez allowed them to stop counting and go home, she said. They started again in the morning.

“You can only do so much with so much,” Lopez said.

“Maybe adjusting the expectations about when election results are unofficially in is something that we need to start having conversations about,” she added. “I understand people want to know; at the same time, because of the circumstances, we’re in an unprecedented time.”

Numerous other county clerks from across the state did not return calls or emails to discuss any problems they encountered during the primary. Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover declined an interview.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said last week that streamlining the November election would be a priority among a slate of initiatives for the special session, which primarily will focus on shoring up a $2 billion budget hole for fiscal year 2021.

In a news conference Thursday, the governor reiterated her office’s plans to make an emergency election provision a priority during the special session that begins Thursday.

Problems with a vendor contracted to assist in filling absentee ballot requests in Santa Fe County, along with mail delays, pushed voters to the polls, creating more risk for spreading COVID-19 and leaving some late-arriving ballots uncounted, Lujan Grisham said.

“And that’s untenable. Absolutely we are working through a number of ideas,” she said, adding “most us are expecting a resurgence [of COVID-19] in the fall. …

“I expect to have election strategy on the call,” the governor said. “I’m reluctant to tell you what exactly is in it.”

Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have criticized vote-by-mail efforts that have emerged nationwide during the pandemic. Democrats have defended them, arguing Republicans’ claims that automatic mail ballots would lead to more voter fraud are baseless.

New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce repeated the argument in a statement Friday.

“The governor, her Administration and Ivey-Soto need to address the budget fiasco during this Special Session and not spend time trying to alter the election, seek extensions and ultimately damage election integrity this November,” Pearce said in the statement.

He added: “Democrats are desperate, scared, and cannot admit they’re worried about this fall. Republican momentum is growing, and they’ll do anything to stop it.”