At least a few New Mexico counties struggled with hiccups on their first day of early, in-person voting for the general election, with voters enduring long waits and in some cases getting turned away because of confusion surrounding absentee ballot requests.
While early voting statewide doesn’t start until Oct. 17, many counties began allowing voters to cast ballots Tuesday.
Santa Fe County launched early voting at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center on West Marcy Street, where a line of more than 50 people stretched around a downtown corner Tuesday morning — in part because of technical issues.
Voting machines were not programmed at first to allow voters who had previously requested an absentee ballot by mail to sign an affidavit canceling the request so they could get a new ballot and vote in person, election officials said.
County clerks across the state have been reporting a record surge in absentee ballot requests amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that continues to pose health risks.
On Tuesday, however, many voters across the state changed their minds and attempted to cast their ballot in person to avoid possible problems with voting by mail. An election law change in 2019 allows a voter to cancel their mail-in ballot request and instead vote in person. But some voting sites, including the convention center in Santa Fe, weren’t prepared for the process.
Although some Santa Fe voters complained about long lines early Tuesday, the issues were resolved by midmorning, Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar said.
“We had a long line,” Salazar said. “We had to queue absentee ballot application requesters and then those that were ready to vote to go in to make sure we had a flow.
“And we had some very patient voters who were willing to wait and then we also had some that had to go to work,” she added, “and that broke my heart, because when they’re here, I want them to vote.”
The county will begin offering early voting and same-day voter registration services at the County Clerk’s Office on Wednesday. Additional early voting sites will open around the county Oct. 17.
In Roosevelt and Curry counties, clerks did not know at first about the state election law change allowing voters to cancel their absentee ballot request and obtain a new ballot. Under the previous law, a voter would have to surrender an absentee ballot before obtaining a ballot to fill out in person.
Confusion about the new law resulted in some voters in the two counties being turned away, according to Roosevelt County Chief Deputy Clerk Nathalia Baca and Curry County Democratic Party Chairman Anthony Mahan.
Baca said it was a mistake on her part.
“We didn’t know that the law changed, or I wasn’t aware that it changed in 2019, and that’s just my doing,” she said.
The mistake led to at least one frustrated voter in Roosevelt County.
John Peter Petrone, an assistant professor of education administration at Eastern New Mexico University, said he changed his mind about casting an absentee ballot after reading about problems with the mail in other states. He decided to vote in person Tuesday but was turned away.
Baca told him he would have to wait until he received his mail ballot and then turn it in before casting a regular ballot in person, Petrone said.
“So obviously I wasn’t going to be allowed to vote, and this is the first time in my life I’ve ever had this happen,” he said. “And I’ve been voting since I was 18, and I’m 57.”
Petrone said he had feared he might have been turned away intentionally because he’s a Democrat in a largely Republican county.
There were other concerns of intentional voter suppression.
Mahan said he’d heard a rumor that a bus full of supporters of President Donald Trump was parked outside a polling location in Clovis and Democratic voters were being turned away there.
A staff member with U.S. Sen. Tom Udall’s office later told Mahan the Curry County clerk had ordered the driver to move the bus away from the polling site, he said.
Mahan said perhaps only one or two people were turned away at the site due to the absentee ballot confusion, which was resolved.
Early voters in Santa Fe said the process was running smoothly and quickly at the convention center by Tuesday afternoon.
“It was super easy. The line moved smoothly,” Deborah Weiss Grunstein said. “The people were so kind and were so appreciative of the ones running the booths.”
Marsha Harner, 69, another Santa Fe voter, also said she didn’t have any problems and felt safe in the convention center, which has a high ceiling and a large room where voting booths are spaced far apart from each another.
“The instructions were great, just bada bing bada boom, right in and right out,” Harner said. “There’s plenty of space. There are monitors telling you what to do at each station.”
Salazar said she does not anticipate further problems as more early voting sites open this month, but she said her staff is prepared to troubleshoot during an unprecedented election amid the pandemic and a bitter political atmosphere.
“There’s no predictability, especially when there’s technology involved, as we witnessed this morning,” Salazar said. “But they’re working now to ensure what happened here does not happen at the alternate sites.”