Even after long lines at polling sites in Wisconsin on Tuesday raised alarms about the possible spread of COVID-19, the New Mexico Republican Party is continuing its push to block a request by 27 county clerks to hold the state’s primary election by mail.
State GOP Chairman Steve Pearce said in an interview Wednesday he has serious concerns about the security of a mail-ballot election. The party has been granted a request to intervene in the clerks’ case in the New Mexico Supreme Court, which would determine whether voters registered as members of the major political parties automatically will be sent a ballot for the June 2 primary and whether polling locations will be closed to protect public health.
The state Republican Party favors maintaining traditional absentee voting, in which voters can request and receive a ballot by mail. The party would “leave it up to the Secretary of State and county clerks to decide if and when polling places are open,” party spokesman Mike Curtis said in an email.
Pearce defended maintaining public polling places, despite the health risks.
Wisconsin Republicans successfully blocked a mail-in election there, forcing voters to cast ballots at a limited number of polling sites that were severely understaffed because of a drop in the number of people willing to serve as poll workers during the pandemic.
“Well, if you have bothered to go the Walmart or the supermarket during these times, I suspect that the crowd there is just as dense as it would be at any single polling place,” Pearce argued.
He added: “There are ways to solve it if you’re gonna vote in person, but our recommendation is that everybody be given the application for an absentee ballot and still go ahead and vote by mail with absentee ballots.”
The distinction — whether New Mexico voters registered as Democrats, Republicans or Libertarians would automatically receive a primary election ballot or whether they’d have to request one — is of key importance, Secretary of State Maggie ouse Oliver said.
County clerks who have petitioned the state Supreme Court for an automatic mail-in ballot system argue it would make the election process easier for voters.
If Republicans are successful in their court challenge, New Mexico could have to maintain 168 public polling places for early voting and 568 on election day. Toulouse Oliver said this would pose risks to both voters and poll workers, who often are over the age of 60 and at higher risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19.
“Steve Pearce and the Republican Party should be ashamed of themselves for trying to drag politics and partisanship into what is a health crisis going on in this state and our country,” Toulouse Oliver said in an interview. “And by trying to block us from doing the right thing for the voting public, they are basically saying it’s better to put people’s lives at risk than to do it a different way, and I think that’s shameful.”
There is still enough time to conduct an absentee-focused election before the primary, she said. People can request an absentee ballot until May 28, either by mail or through an online portal on the agency’s website.
State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, an attorney representing the county clerks who filed the petition, bashed Pearce and other Republicans who argue a mail-in election exposes the state to increased chances of voter fraud.
He and Toulouse Oliver said there are numerous safeguards already in place to ensure voter fraud does not happen.
One key security measure, Ivey-Soto said, is the requirement that voters include their name, registration address, signature and date of birth. So if a voter’s ballot is sent to the wrong address or to a home where they no longer live, the current resident would have to know their date of birth to fraudulently cast their ballot.
And double-voting is not an issue because each ballot envelope has a unique bar code scanned upon receipt by county clerks, he said.
“Of course [Pearce] didn’t mention that,” Ivey-Soto said. “What’s frustrating about this challenge is that they are politicizing … the fundamentals of our democracy. That should not be politicized.”
Common Cause New Mexico, the League of Women Voters of New Mexico, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and other groups filed a brief supporting the clerks’ petition to host a mail-in primary election.
“New Mexicans should not have to choose between their safety and the exercise of their right to vote,” said Levi Monagle, a Common Cause board member and the author of the amicus brief.
As part of the case, the state Supreme Court also has asked parties to submit their opinion on whether it’s possible for the Legislature to host a special session virtually, rather than in person, to vote on a change in the election code that would allow mail-only voting.
Ahead of an April 14 hearing on the matter, the Supreme Court asked several parties — including the state Legislature, the Democratic Party and the Governor’s Office — to submit input on whether state legislators could legally convene and vote remotely.
In its response Wednesday, the Legislative Council said the state constitution requires legislators to be “present” on the House and Senate floors to pass bills. Lawmakers would have to convene in person to change each chamber’s rules to allow for a remote special session.
The council said it could not advocate for or against such rule changes but noted “the difficulty in timely effecting those modifications in a manner which would accommodate the primary election set for June 2, 2020.”
Attorneys for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Democratic Party of New Mexico also were expected to a file a brief Wednesday outlining their stance on the constitutionality of a virtual legislative session.
This story has been amended to reflect the following correction: A previous version incorrectly reported the number of polling locations that could be open for the June 2 primary election. The correct number is 168 for early voting and 568 on election day.