September 21, 2020

Secretary of State talks voting by mail in New Mexico

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

Election Day is a month and a half away and New Mexico’s Secretary of State Maggie Tolouse Oliver wants voters to know the state’s election process works and is safe and secure. 

Over the past several weeks, there has been speculation from President Donald Trump and the Republican Party that voting by mail could result in widespread voter fraud. Questions about how secure mail in ballots are is nothing new. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a push by many to encourage voters to mail in their ballots instead of showing up in person to vote. 

Toulouse Oliver told NM Political Report that she is confident in both her staff and the county clerks’ ability to accurately and efficiently process ballots on Election Day and even the days leading up to it. 

National political rhetoric has also seemed to create confusion in New Mexico whether mailing in a ballot is safe. Trump has expressed his concern with mailing in ballots, yet he has voted by mail in Florida, where he is registered to vote. Further, the Republican Party of New Mexico has sent out at least one batch of mailers, encouraging voters to request an absentee ballot and vote in support of Trump. Toulouse Oliver said there is not much difference between “mail-in voting” and “absentee voting” except that in New Mexico, an absentee ballot has to be requested by the voter. 

NM Political Report spoke with Toulouse Oliver earlier this week to try and clear up any confusion about this year’s election and whether or not we may see result delays in the state.

First off, I’m hoping you can clear up some confusion with the term absentee versus mail and voting. Is there a difference in New Mexico? And if so, what is it?

There’s really not a difference. An absentee ballot is a mail-in ballot, or at least it’s a ballot that’s mailed to you by the county clerk. We do have some elections in New Mexico in which a ballot is automatically mailed to the voter. That would be a universal vote by mail or “all mail election.” However, absentee ballots have to be requested first by the voters, that’s the only difference.

What are those elections where you would get a ballot? I think maybe the Albuquerque Public School Board had an election like that not too long ago.

They’re nonpartisan elections that are conducted any time there are no regular local elections, which now we have every November of odd numbered years. For the example you use, a school board, let’s say they need to go out for a bond or a mill increase or something like that and they can’t wait until the regular local election in November of the odd numbered year and they decide to conduct a special election. Those are required to be conducted by mail. And that is where a ballot automatically goes out to a voter, a voter doesn’t request one.

Can you explain some of the deadlines for absentee voting and what voters need to know in order to make sure they get their vote counted this year?

Applications for an absentee ballot can be accepted now. However, the deadline to submit an application for an absentee ballot is the 20th of October. So obviously, folks need to get their applications in before or by then, no later. Ballots will begin being mailed to voters on October 6. So, if you submit your application today, and the clerk processes it you’re still not going to get a ballot until they begin to be mailed out on October 6. Then, we’re advising voters not to put a ballot back in the mail after the 27th of October because the postal service is recommending a week, a seven day turnaround time, for any piece of mail. That’s part of why we moved the deadline to apply for a ballot back to October 20. That would allow a clerk enough time to mail the ballot to the voter and the voter enough time to mail it back so that it will make it to the clerk’s office in time.

Just to be clear, when we’re talking about deadlines and when we use the term “received by,” is it important for voters to know that it has to literally be in the clerk’s office by that time?

We don’t follow the postmark here in New Mexico. A ballot has to be received by the county clerk, either in the office or at a polling location, by 7 p.m. on Election Day. And the reason we are recommending not putting a ballot in the mail after October 27 is, again, so that it has the time to get to the county clerk. During the week before Election Day, we are recommending dropping the ballot off at a polling location or the clerk’s office directly.

Speaking of mail, there was a notice sent out by the U.S. Postal Service with tips for absentee voting. Is that something people can use as reliable advice?

In New Mexico, the postcard is accurate. It’s very general information. And we, during the special session this summer, designed these deadlines around the Postal Service recommendations. So everything does line up in terms of that.

There’s been a lot of talk about delayed election results, and we saw delays during the 2nd Congressional District election in 2018. Do you expect there to be some delays in results this November and if so, a long delay or short delay?

There could be some delays. The first thing that I want to say about election results is that it’s really important for folks to know that when everybody else goes to sleep on election night, thinking the election is over, the process is still ongoing. It doesn’t matter what election we’re talking about, it happens in every election. County clerks and the Secretary of State’s office are continuing the post-election process; counting ballots that came in to the clerk’s office on election day or to polling places and qualifying and counting provisional ballots. County clerks have a couple of weeks after election day to finish all of that up. 

I will say that, here in New Mexico, given the lessons learned during the past primary [election] about what the challenges and pitfalls were of having so many ballots come in by absentee, that the clerks are much more ready, going into the general [election]. They know, for example, how they need to beef up their absentee board, in terms of the number of people, they know they need to start earlier. In some cases, they’re getting bigger spaces, so that they can have more people working at the same time, but also be socially distanced. So I think there are a lot of preparations going on, to really get ahead of the absentee processing and counting process. They can also start at least five days before election day to begin that process. In counties that have mailed out more than 15,000 ballots, they can start seven days early. Every county clerk that I’ve consulted with is planning to start that process as early as possible, so they can have as many ballots counted on election night as possible. The goal of all of that, of course, is that we have the vast majority of the election results published on election night. And there will, undoubtedly, be some more votes to be counted and included in the subsequent day or days. But, I’m hopeful that we won’t have to wait many days after the election here because of all of these preparations that the clerks are making to get it done on the front end.

In previous elections, we’ve seen the first big batch of numbers that come in are early voting ballots that have already been counted. Do you see it going that same way this year?

I’m going to be encouraging the clerks to post, certainly, their early voting results as quickly as possible. It’s also possible for them to pause their absentee process at a certain point, early on election night to run totals and post those totals for what has already been counted and then to continue the counting process after that. I think it’s going to be important to get as many results up and reported as quickly as possible, so we have as fulsome a picture as we can possibly have about what the outcome of all of these various elections look like. It’s just going to depend on how it all comes together. We may have very few problems in terms of having enough staff and in terms of those types of issues that will make it so the results can come out much more quickly. But of course, we don’t know exactly what things are going to look like on November 3, and there could be some unforeseen challenges, especially in terms of staffing, that may prolong that. 

Maybe this is a good time to remind readers that while you are the Secretary of State, the physical counting and accounting for ballots still goes back to individual county clerks, right?

That’s right. The clerks, and even more specifically, the poll officials at the polling locations are the ones actually conducting the election. And the initial aggregation and reporting of election results is going to come from the counties themselves. Of course we have a role in making those numbers public and of course we will be auditing them once their processes are complete. But yeah, at the end of the day, on election night, when it comes to getting those results inputted and reported, it’s going to be each of the state’s 33 county clerks that are going to be responsible for that. 

What else do you want voters, whether absentee or in person, to know about the upcoming election that we didn’t talk about?

I think they should know that their election officials, whether it’s the Secretary of State’s Office or the county clerks, are all working incredibly hard to make sure that this is a safe, secure election where no voter has to choose between their health and casting their ballot. That they’re working over-time to provide abundant options for voters to cast their ballots and to get that information out to voters about how, where and when to vote. And that inevitably there are always challenges in an election and there’s no such thing as a perfect election. But, by and large, between the people running the process and the the actual process to vote here in New Mexico, which we get extremely high marks for in comparison to other states, that we’re going to have just that: A safe, secure election with integrity that voters can feel good about, at least in terms of the integrity of the election process.

This interview was edited for length and clarity