November 5, 2020

NM had record absentee votes, total turnout, but elections ran smoothly

As election vote counts drag on for days in some other areas of the country, New Mexico will finish its vote counting by Wednesday.

This is despite not only record-breaking overall turnout, but also record-shattering voting by absentee ballot. It all took part with the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic, necessitating special procedures for elections.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver told NM Political Report that Election Day largely went smoothly, with just “pedestrian, every election” problems that crop up, “nothing on a wide scale or systemic level.”

But the quick vote was a contrast compared to past elections in parts of the state, both the 2018 general election and this June’s primary elections.

One example was Doña Ana County. In 2018, a higher-than-normal number of absentee ballots meant election officials continued to count ballots until Wednesday night. The ballots proved decisive in a taut and close congressional race, ultimately won by Democrat Xochitl Torres Small. 

The number of absentee ballots that overwhelmed election workers that year? 8,517. This year, Doña Ana County tabulated over 27,200 absentee ballots—and it went relatively smoothly.

Doña Ana County Chief Deputy Clerk Lindsey Bachman attributed the change to better preparation and a key election change made during this year’s legislative session.

“We really worked hard to bulk up the internal staffing. And then additionally at our polling locations as well as our absent voting board, we really beefed up the amount of our officials,” Bachman said.

Absentee ballots take more time to process and count because of the need to verify the voter’s identity and that the voter hadn’t previously voted in-person.

The county had 1,200 ballots left to count after vote counting ended at 11 p.m. on Tuesday night as mandated by the law, but Bachman said they were largely votes that needed to be hand-tallied for different reasons—that they included a vote for a write-in candidate (independent Steve Jones ran in the 2nd Congressional District as a write-in candidate) or the ballot was damaged before arrival.

“All of that is going to be taken care of today in a way that’s efficient and meticulous and all of the things that make for an election with integrity,” Bachman told NM Political Report Wednesday morning, before the county finished its tally.

She said a big election change passed by the Legislature was moving up the deadline for voters to request absentee ballots. This year, voters could request absentee ballots through Oct. 20—two weeks before election day. Bachman called the change “critical for us as a county” for their ability to “meet the demand and process the ballots.”

The county did not need to divert resources to send out absentee ballots in the final week and could instead focus on receiving the ballots and processing them.

Another help not available to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or other states still counting ballots? Getting a head start. 

Counties in New Mexico get a head start on counting absentee ballots. Counties that sent out 10,000 or more ballots were able to begin processing the absentee ballots two weeks before Election Day. Counties that sent out fewer were able to start processing ballots five days before Election Day.

Still, not everything went perfect on election night. 

A server in Doña Ana County was uploading results slowly, so the county had to reboot it. But that was a minor problem and did not impact vote tallies.

Toulouse Oliver said that the primary election, as difficult as it was, helped election officials know what would be needed for the general election.

“There was maybe a sort of an intellectual understanding that it would require doing something differently” in the primary because of the pandemic and an increased number of absentee ballots, Toulouse Oliver said, but some counties struggled with the extra demand of absentee ballots. 

In June, Santa Fe and Taos counties needed approval from a judge for extra time to finish counting ballots.

A Taos County absentee ballot precinct board member “simply left his duties, claiming it was too stressful” during the primary election count, according to an attorney for Taos County.

Ultimately, Santa Fe County finished counting ballots four days after the primary, on Saturday, June 6.

This year, in the general election, Taos and Santa Fe counties each finished tallying votes by 11 p.m. on election night.

Sandoval County had 750 votes left to process, and Otero County had fifty as of 11 p.m. on election night—the only other two counties beside Doña Ana County to need to finish the regular vote counting on Wednesday.

Toulouse Oliver also cited changes to state election laws as one reason why Election Day went smoothly, along with increased funding.

Some, she hoped, would remain, like allowing extra time for absentee ballot processing, noting that since more people voted by mail this year for the first time, they may do so again in future elections.

Also, she noted some changes to aid tribal voting, which was a problem during the primary, but acknowledged that more needs to be done to reduce inequities in the voting process.

“The reality is just that we do not have a lot of access to voting in Native communities,” she said, noting that the Legislature can look at changes.

With all of this, the process isn’t over for election workers this year.

Today and in coming days, county clerks and election workers will finish processing the remainder of absentee ballots and qualifying and tabulating provisional ballots, Toulouse Oliver said. Counties will also begin the canvassing process, to double-check results, then this will be followed up with a statewide canvas. At the same time, an independent audit will take place to further “double-check and triple-check” results.

All of this upcoming work, and the work done on Election Day and previous weeks of absentee and early in-person voting, was a testament to the work of county clerks and election officials, Tolouose Oliver said.

“The county clerks are just, frankly the county clerks and polo workers are the real heroes of this story. They were just the ones going way above and beyond to make sure this election went off as well as it did.” 

Bachman praised election workers and all the voters who took part in the election.

“I’m just so proud. So proud of our state, so proud of our county for just showing up, participating in the process, finding value in the process,” Bachman said.