Home News COVID-19 Situation Primary election ruling emphasizes absentee voting

Primary election ruling emphasizes absentee voting

Lisa Dunlap Photo County Clerk Dave Kunko, shown at right in this 2018 photo, was one of four clerks and several area legislators who filed briefs as intervenors in the lawsuit about upcoming elections.

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The Chaves County clerk and several area legislators had their legal positions validated by the New Mexico Supreme Court decision Tuesday against a voting-by-mail primary election.

Instead, the justices made clear their preference for absentee voting at this time.

County Clerk Dave Kunko and several state representatives and senators who represent the county were among the many intervenors and interested parties who filed briefs in the lawsuit brought March 30 by 27 county clerks that asked the court to decide an unprecedented question caused by the circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis, whether the June 2 statewide primary elections could be conducted only by mailing out ballots to voters.

Casey Higgins, Chaves County bureau elections chief, said the decision was “ensuring a status quo election in June.”

“We will be working closely with the Secretary of State’s office as we move forward,” she said.

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Kunko chose not to comment at this time, saying he preferred to read the court’s written opinion. That was not available as of press time.

In bringing the suit, the petitioners noted that neither Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham or state legislators had chosen to call a special session to consider the issue because of the current orders limiting gatherings where people must be at least six feet apart from each other.

The petitioners acknowledged that they were asking the court to render a decision that normally could be made only by the Legislature. But their lawyer, Daniel Ivey-Soto, termed it a “modification” of existing law as mail balloting does occur now in certain sparsely populated areas of the state.

The defendant in the case, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, supported the voting-by-mail option. Opposition to it was presented by lawyers representing the Republican Party, the Libertarian Party, and a group that included Kunko, three other county clerks and many Republican legislators.

After about four hours of oral arguments from lawyers and questioning by justices, the court ruled unanimously that mailing ballots to people who had not applied for one was explicitly prohibited by state statute.

Instead, they ordered the Secretary of State or county clerks to mail absentee ballot applications to registered voters.

In New Mexico, only candidates for the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties appear on the primary ballot, and only people registered with those parties can vote in the primaries.

“Under the circumstances of this pandemic, it is indisputable that in-person voting poses a substantial health risk in the state of New Mexico, and, therefore, absentee voting is the preferred method,” said Chief Justice Judith Nakamura.

The court also noted that sending absentee applications would “educate” the public that absentee voting would be a safer option. The justices further ordered that all in-person voting that occurs — whether early voting starting May 5 or on the June 2 primary election day — comply with all state and national emergency and public health orders.

The primary elections include candidates at the national, state and local level. Eligible Chaves County voters will make decisions about party candidates for U.S. president, U.S senators and representatives, state senators and representatives, state and district justices, public commissions, the 5th Judicial District Attorney, county commissioners, county clerk, and county treasurer. General elections are to be held Nov 3.

Absentee ballots and voter registration can be requested from the Secretary of State’s office or the county clerk’s office.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.


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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.