In the combustible world of Española city politics, claims of voter fraud are nothing unusual, with the loser usually crying foul. But in the most recent municipal elections, it was election officials who became suspicious of three absentee ballots in a race that was decided by two votes.

State police are investigating whether possible voter fraud tipped the race in favor of newly elected Española City Councilor Robert Seeds, who defeated the incumbent by the thinnest of margins in the March 1 election.

Sgt. Elizabeth Armijo, a state police spokeswoman, confirmed that investigators are reviewing the city’s District 4 absentee applications and voter-oath documents. Armijo said she couldn’t provide any other details because of the ongoing investigation.

It’s unclear who the probe is targeting, but the outcome could change the makeup of the City Council, and the possible culprits could be charged with a fourth-degree felony.

Former Councilor Cory Lewis, 34, who lost to Seeds, initially didn’t claim wrongdoing. Instead, it was city and election officials who became suspicious that two absentee ballots and one absentee application had been fraudulently signed.

Lewis and Seeds were both city councilors in District 4 from 2010 to 2014. Each district in Española has two seats. Seeds lost his seat in 2014, but Lewis’ seat wasn’t up for election until this year.

“This election was stolen from me,” Lewis said in a recent interview.

City officials didn’t count the three absentee ballots because they suspected that voter fraud had occurred. But they worry the problem could have been more widespread.

City Clerk Anna Squires said that if police find that people coerced voters to vote in favor of Seeds, he could lose his seat. She said election officials saw discrepancies in the absentee application signatures when they compared them with the signatures on the voter-oath documents. After receiving the ballots through the mail, election officials put them aside so they couldn’t be tallied.

Squires wrote a letter Feb. 19 to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office asking for advice. She said the office advised her to contact District Attorney Jennifer Padgett. The district attorney said last week that she met March 7 with Squires and an early voting precinct judge who says she witnessed voter fraud committed by someone connected to Seeds’ wife.

After the meeting, Padgett contacted state police and investigators entered the case, she said.

Seeds did not return phone messages from The New Mexican seeking comment.

Lewis’ only option at this point is to contest the election results in state District Court, Squires said. But to do so, Lewis needs evidence that people committed voter fraud. Lewis has until April 4 to challenge the election results in court. He hopes police release their findings well before then.

“I’m confident that state police are going to come back with some findings that prove voter fraud happened,” Lewis said.

Squires’ letter details what election officials suspect were two instances of voter fraud.

In the first, on Feb. 17, Laura Seeds, the councilor’s wife, and a man named Dyon Herrera were delivering absentee applications to election officials when Herrera’s grandmother called him on his cellphone. The grandmother then spoke to Seeds’ wife on the cellphone and told Laura Seeds that Herrera’s grandfather had accidentally ripped up their absentee ballots, confusing them with junk mail.

Laura Seeds asked Kelly Romero, who had been hired to help with the city election, what the Herreras could do about the destroyed absentee ballots. Romero spoke to the grandmother on the cellphone and told her to bring the two torn absentee ballots and related documents to the precinct. The grandmother said her grandson, Dyon Herrera, would deliver the documents the next day.

The grandson arrived at the precinct with the two torn ballots and the related documents. After Romero and the absentee voting presiding judge, Therisa Aguilar, reviewed the documents, they taped the ballots and put them inside a sealed envelope so Dyon Herrera could return them to his grandparents.

According to the letter by the Española city clerk, Aguilar then went to an adjoining room, where she saw through the window the grandson sitting in his vehicle and opening the sealed envelopes. Five minutes later, Herrera returned with the absentee ballots, saying his grandparents had signed them inside his vehicle. Aguilar went to the same room and from the window she saw only young passengers, not Herrera’s grandparents, in the vehicle.

The second instance of possible fraud, according to the letter, occurred at the same voting precinct on an unspecified date. It also involved Herrera and Laura Seeds.

That time, Herrera and Laura Seeds arrived at the precinct with a woman named Daysi Lopez. Lopez said she was delivering her four siblings’ absentee ballot applications. Aguilar, the presiding election judge for absentee ballots, noticed that one of the applications was not signed.

The clerk’s letter states that Laura Seeds took the application, handed it to Herrera and told him to have Lopez’s brother sign it. Laura Seeds told Aguilar the brother was in her vehicle. Herrera returned promptly with the signed application.

Aguilar, suspecting something was amiss, went to a different room in the building to look out the window and see who was in Laura Seeds’ vehicle. Aguilar said she saw Laura Seeds driving, Herrera in the front passenger seat and Daysi Lopez in the back passenger seat. She didn’t see anyone else.

The race between Lewis and Seeds was contentious from the start.

In January, Laura Seeds filed a complaint in state District Court seeking to remove Lewis from the ballot. Laura Seeds contended that Lewis didn’t live in the district in which he was running.

Lewis later said in an interview with The New Mexican that he has lived in the same house in District 4 since he was born.

State District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe later ruled that Lewis lives in District 4 and was an eligible candidate.

When Seeds lost his council seat in 2014, Laura Seeds wrote a letter to the Attorney General’s Office claiming fraud. Laura Seeds claimed that a former city clerk had manipulated the election results.

Laura Seeds said in the letter that the city clerk a day after the election had reported 100 more votes than were reported on the day of election. The city clerk attributed this to a typographical error. The Attorney General’s Office investigated but didn’t file any charges.

Another example of contentious Española politics occurred in that same 2014 election.

In a three-way race for a City Council seat, Phillip Chacon initially was declared the winner, edging past Michelle R. Martinez 170 to 168. But Martinez paid for a recount, saying she believed the totals were wrong. The recount changed the result to a tie, with Chacon and Martinez each receiving 167 votes.

State law says a tie vote is decided by a game of chance. So state District Judge Francis Mathew hosted Chacon and Martinez in his courtroom in Santa Fe, where the election was decided by a best-of-three coin flip. Martinez won the on the third toss, calling tails.

Contact Uriel Garcia at 505-986-3062 or Follow him on Twitter @ujohnnyg.

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