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County decides on new early voting site

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[Note: This post has been updated to include additional information provided by the Chaves County Clerk’s office regarding a Hagerman early voting location.]

Early voting for primary races is scheduled to start May 5, and the Chaves County Clerk’s Office has announced that it has changed an alternate polling location due to the COVID-19 situation and the state orders related to it.

A south section of the Chaves County Administrative Center, known as Area D, at 1 St. Mary’s Place will open May 5 as originally planned.

But a new alternate site at Berrendo Elementary School at 505 W. Pine Lodge Road will open May 16. Previously the alternate site was to be located at the Roswell Mall on North Main Street.

“In light of the governor recently extending the order to keep businesses closed, the Chaves County Clerk’s office has been forced to move one of our alternate early voting locations from the Roswell Mall to Berrendo Elementary,” Casey Higgins, Bureau of Elections chief, wrote in an email.

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In addition, an early voting site at the Hagerman JOY Center at 503 E. Argyle St. is scheduled to be open May 19, 21, 26 and 28 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

According to an April 14 decision of the New Mexico Supreme Court, an all-mail election cannot be mandated in spite of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. But, while in-person voting is allowed, absentee voting is preferred, said Chief Justice Judith Nakamura.

Each voter registered with one of the three major parties in the state — Democratic, Republican or Libertarian parties — will receive an application for an absentee ballot. Only major party candidates appear on primary ballots in New Mexico, and only voters registered with one of those parties are eligible to vote in primaries.

Higgins said that the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office will mail applications for absentee ballots to voters. Chaves County Clerk Dave Kunko previously has said that the mailings should begin this week. People also can make their own requests for absentee ballots from the Secretary of State.

“We are encouraging Chaves County voters to vote absentee,” Higgins wrote, but she added that the county is preparing to ensure the safety of those choosing to vote in person.

“We will be working diligently to make sure all locations are equipped to have the personal protection equipment needed to make voting safe for our poll workers and anyone who chooses to utilize this,” she wrote. “With the difficult times we are all facing right now, our office will do everything we can possibly do to provide safety to our voters while ensuring that our democracy continues forward.”

In-person early voting presents some issues for the county, Kunko recently told county commissioners. He expressed concerns about the effects on turnout and on voters.

“It is really going to be a big issue (at Area D) because I don’t know that people will want to stand outside and wait because we have too many people on the inside,” he said.

He said that Sheriff’s Office deputies might have to be called to assist with enforcing social distancing rules if people won’t follow the directions of poll workers.

He also explained that the Roswell Mall could no longer serve as the alternate voting site because it was remaining closed, in compliance with state public health orders.

“The alternate voting site does not have to come to the commission or the district court,” Kunko said. “We write a letter to the Secretary of State on an alternate voting site, and they either approve or disapprove.”

The primary elections will include candidates for U.S. president. U.S. senators and representatives, state senators and representatives, state and district judges, public commissions, the 5th Judicial District Attorney, county commissioners, county treasurer and county clerk.

Primary election day is June 2. General elections are scheduled for Nov. 3. More information is available by contacting the Clerk’s Office at 575-624-6614.

To keep up with coverage of this and other 2020 elections of local and regional interest, go to rdrnews.com/category/news/elections/.

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