County clerks in New Mexico aren’t just preparing for an election this year.

They’re networking, marketing, recruiting and even trying to fundraise.

That’s because clerks are undertaking a huge push to beef up their staff amid a pandemic that has required more election workers while sidelining some of them.

“I think it’s a real concern,” said Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, New Mexico’s chief elections official. “And I know that everybody’s working hard at this.”

New Mexico is 72 days away from a high-stakes general election that will put all state legislative seats and four of its five congressional seats up for grabs.

The main event, of course, will be the presidential contest between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden.

The nation is still wrestling with a coronavirus pandemic that could make the November election the most unusual in U.S. history. As New Mexico’s 33 counties get ready for the vote, they’re grappling with challenges brought on by the health emergency that could jeopardize a timely and accurate vote count.

Poll workers key

In many ways, New Mexico is in a better spot than other states.

Legislation passed during the special legislative session in June has given election officials more tools and could help reduce the volume of absentee ballots county clerks receive at the last minute.

And despite nationwide concern about the U.S. Postal Service, the federal agency and state officials say they’re confident absentee ballots will be delivered on time in New Mexico.

County clerks aren’t yet in the clear, however. Their biggest concern appears to be ensuring they have enough people to work at polling locations and process absentee ballots.

Earlier this year, 4 in 5 poll workers in New Mexico were over the age of 65, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. That’s the age group most vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, meaning many people who normally staff the polls are likely to stay home for the Nov. 3 election.

The lack of staffing became a problem during the primary election in June. Santa Fe County had to ask a state district judge to allow it four extra days to process ballots because an overwhelming number arrived by mail. Other counties, such as Taos and Doña Ana, also used additional time to count votes, delaying election results.

Bigger ballot load

The potential for such delays could increase in November with an increased number of voters casting ballots. One New Mexico pollster projects the volume could more than double.

About 42 percent of voters registered with one of three major parties in the state — around 417,000 New Mexicans — cast ballots in the primary. Longtime expert Brian Sanderoff said some 65 percent of all registered voters — about 845,000 people — could weigh in during the general election.

“The county clerks are really going to have to be on the top of their game here,” Sanderoff said.

As a result, they’re hitting the recruitment trail.

‘We’ve made pleas’

Doña Ana County Clerk Amanda López Askin has sent flyers to all of her contacts, led videoconferences to recruit workers from nonprofit organizations and asked schools and universities to let their staff know the County Clerk’s Office is hiring for Election Day.

“You name it and I’ve contacted them,” López Askin said. “It’s paid off, but it has been every day, constantly.”

Casting a wide net, the county clerk has asked for recruiting help from a local Realtors association, the chamber of commerce, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces Public Schools and her county’s own staff.

“So, we’re talking from janitorial to school administrators to teachers — we’ve made pleas to them,” she said. “We’re counting on our community to help with this election. We can’t do it by ourselves.”

The numbers show why the efforts are necessary.

Doña Ana, the second-largest county in the state, aims to more than double its total elections staff from 120 people in the June primary to 260 for the general election. It also wants to more than triple the number of people in charge of counting absentee ballots to 40 workers from 12.

Reaching those objectives would help the county open all 40 of its in-person polling locations. Only 21 were open during the primary, and that reduced number can dissuade people in rural areas from voting because they have to travel longer distances, López Askin said.

“It’s a barrier that’s a decision-maker as to whether they can participate or not,” she said.

In Santa Fe, a similar push

Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar said Friday she had just been informed the county had enough funds to expand the team charged with counting mail-in votes to at least 30 people from 13. The additional hires are necessary, Salazar said, given the county received six times the usual volume of absentee ballots during the primary.

“If you don’t have adequate staffing, that puts the burden on those who will be on the limited staff,” she said.

Salazar said she still plans to meet with the county’s finance department to determine whether there are enough funds to make additional in-office hires she needs for the election.

The county clerk also said the county’s warehouse for counting ballots in Santa Fe is too small for the team. She asked the city of Santa Fe to let county elections workers instead use the downtown convention center, which is larger and closer to the County Clerk’s Office.

City officials declined, she said.

“I’d like the city to reconsider that,” Salazar added.

Tighter deadlines

In July, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law Senate Bill 4, which included a number of provisions aimed at streamlining the election process during a pandemic.

Election officials say the measures will help.

For one, the bill requires the outer envelope of absentee ballots to include an “intelligent bar code” allowing voters and postal officials to track ballots as they make their way through the mail.

The legislation also moved deadlines earlier so that voters now only have until Oct. 20, two weeks before the election, to request absentee ballots — a change aimed at avoiding a glut of mail-in ballots for county clerks to process at the last minute.

“In that full two-week period, all [county clerks] will be doing is receiving ballots back so they can focus their efforts on processing what is coming in and getting their ducks in a row,” Toulouse Oliver said.

The new timeline, which urges voters to mail back their ballots by Oct. 27 at the latest, follows best practices set by the Postal Service, including allowing seven days for applications to be mailed and another seven days for ballots to arrive.

As a result of those adjustments, the federal agency has told New Mexico it expects to deliver mail-in ballots to clerks in a timely fashion, even as it has warned many other states across the nation that some of their ballots might arrive too late to be counted.

“We learned a lot from the primary, and one of the things that we learned is we developed a really close relationship with the Postal Service,” Toulouse Oliver said. “They feel highly, highly confident that they can get anything where it’s to go in seven days.”

Additionally, the bill allows county clerks to automatically mail absentee ballot applications to registered voters if they choose. So far, 10 counties — including Santa Fe and the state’s other three most populous counties — have elected to do so. Five have declined, and the rest have not yet informed the state of their plans.

Close races

Some voters have expressed frustration that the secretary of state’s online portal to request an absentee ballot is not yet available, especially as state officials have urged voters to request ballots early.

“Where is the sense of urgency in allowing voters the opportunity to request a mail-in ballot?” said Stephen Coutts, a Santa Fe resident and retired biotech researcher.

The Secretary of State’s Office said it had to make technical updates to the portal and that it should be online within a week. That means a ballot application will still be available earlier than usual before an election, the office said.

Despite all the updates to New Mexico’s election process, the secretary of state and county clerks say there’s a possibility of delayed results, particularly if they can’t hire enough workers.

That would especially become a problem if there are close races that can’t be called until the delayed results come in.

“I think the bigger question is: ‘Are we going to have close races, particularly for the high-profile races like the presidency, where whatever ballots haven’t been counted by the end of the night are going to impact that outcome?’ ” Toulouse Oliver said.

“I think that’s possible, and I think that voters and the public should prepare themselves for that.”


Jens Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

(1) comment

Richard Beal

So who should we contact if we want to volunteer??

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