A last-minute flood of absentee ballots and problems recruiting enough people to staff polling sites June 2 could lead to delays in primary election results, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said.
In the meantime, “problems with delivery timing” have led to delays in mailed absentee ballots.
Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar said her office had put 22,239 ballots in the mail as of Friday, but many voters still had not received them due to sluggish delivery.
Salazar said she has been in communication with the state’s congressional delegation “to reach out to the U.S. Postal Service to resolve the lengthy time it takes for our voters to receive their absentee ballots.”
These problems add more hurdles for county clerks across the state at a time when they already are bogged down with preparations for an unprecedented primary election during a pandemic.
During an interview last week, Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said finding enough people to work at the polls could be a problem in larger counties such as Bernalillo, the state’s most populous. Valencia County Clerk Peggy Carabajal also has expressed concerns about recruiting poll workers, the secretary of state said.
“It could potentially create bottlenecks for Election Day results if these Election Day polling places are operating on skeleton crews and they end up having huge turnouts that are unanticipated,” Toulouse Oliver said.
Carabajal did not return a phone call Friday to discuss the situation.
Clerks in the state’s 33 counties have less than two weeks to finish mailing a record number of absentee ballots and prepare polling locations so they are safe for voters and poll workers.
As of Friday morning, 132,398 absentee ballots had been requested statewide. The deadline to request a ballot by mail is May 28.
On Friday, Toulouse Oliver joined Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in a news conference broadcast live on Facebook. They urged every voter who does not need assistance at an in-person polling place to cast their ballot by mail.
Ensuring most people vote absentee — and cast their ballots early — would make it less likely for poll workers to be overwhelmed by droves of voters on Election Day, officials said. It also would protect poll workers, most of whom are over the age of 60 and at higher risk of developing severe cases of COVID-19 should they contract the illness.
Toulouse Oliver said the sooner eligible primary voters request a ballot by mail, “the sooner you’ll get your ballot; and the sooner you return it, the sooner it’ll be counted.”
Initially, counties were expected to open a combined 600 polling sites on Election Day for people voting in person and turning in last-minute absentee ballots.
According to state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, the number of polling places has been reduced to about 360. Ivey-Soto, who works as an attorney, said he is providing technical support and training for county clerks gearing up for the election.
He also represented 27 county clerks across the state who asked the New Mexico Supreme Court in April to allow them to send a ballot to every voter and conduct the election by mail. The petition was prompted by problems in Wisconsin, where skeleton crews at primary election polling locations, combined with delays in getting absentee ballots to voters, led to long lines in the middle of the pandemic.
Republicans in New Mexico opposed the request for the mail-in election, and justices ruled in the GOP’s favor: State law requires voters to request an absentee ballot before one can be sent. The court ordered the state to mail an absentee ballot request, rather than a ballot, to every registered primary voter.
A voter must be registered as a Democrat, Republican or Libertarian to cast a ballot in a New Mexico primary.
“I think we’ve seen some really terrible lessons and tragedies as a result of in-person voting, so if at all possible, please don’t do that,” Lujan Grisham said Friday.
Ivey-Soto said the problems county clerks now face were issues they had anticipated, which led them to petition the Supreme Court in the first place.
Even worse than slow election results, Ivey-Soto said, would be an increase in people deciding to vote in person on Election Day because their ballot came late or they fear it won’t get counted in time if they return it by mail.
An election night bottleneck for ballot counting would be exacerbated by any potentially close race — such as the heated Republican primary in the 2nd Congressional District or the fierce fight for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the 3rd Congressional District. Seven Democrats are vying for the U.S. House seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján. Luján is running for U.S. Senate.
“Every election administrator, regardless of their personal leanings about an election, the election administrator’s prayer is ‘Oh Lord, let there be no close races,’ ” Ivey-Soto said. “If we have close races, then there may be a delay.”
Salazar said Santa Fe County has drastically cut the number of polling locations that will be open June 2 in anticipation of a shortage of poll volunteers.
During the 2016 primary election, 51 polling locations were open. This year, that number has been slashed to 19, she said. The county seems to have enough poll workers after the cut, Salazar said.
“We’re doing everything we can to manage this election cycle,” Salazar said. “We don’t know, really, are we going to be hit? We don’t think so because we see the amount of absentee ballots requested.”