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Lawmakers, county clerk join lawsuit

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Suit claims poll challengers not allowed to perform duties

Two area legislators and a Chaves County official are among those who have joined the Republican Party of New Mexico in a lawsuit against the New Mexico Secretary of State, in which they accuse the state’s election chief of not enforcing laws that allow poll challengers to perform their duties.

New Mexico House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia; state Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales; and Chaves County Clerk Dave Kunko are listed as petitioners on the petition of extraordinary writ in the suit against New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat.

Petitioners are asking that the matter be taken up in a hearing before the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Lea County Clerk Keith Manes, Catron County Clerk Keith Riddle and Lincoln County Clerk Whitney Whittaker are also petitioners, it was announced Monday in a press release from the Republican Party of New Mexico.

“The Secretary of State has failed to ensure the lawful and equal enforcement by counties of various election and absentee ballot procedures, violating verification and security standards,” the press release states.

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Townsend told the Roswell Daily Record Monday the suit is about maintaining voter integrity.

He said that he has heard that poll challengers are being prohibited by some county clerks from reviewing ballots to ensure they have the correct voter identification, something the petitioners say the law allows them to do.

Townsend added that clerks not allowing absentee ballots to be reviewed by poll challengers — individuals appointed by political parties to act as a check and balance on whether a ballot meets the criteria needed to be counted — is something that has gotten clerks in trouble in the past.

“The Secretary of State needs to make sure that every county clerk is following the exact same guidelines and those guidelines should be in accordance to the law and not a particular county clerk’s wishes,” Townsend said.

Kunko said he signed onto the lawsuit because he wants some clarity reconciling state election statute with provisions of Senate Bill 4 (SB 4), a bill of temporary election-related measures to be taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under SB 4, whose provisions will lapse come 2021, voters who cast an absentee ballot are required to place a filled-out ballot in an envelope, with the voter’s signature and the last four digits of a voter’s Social Security number.

Kunko said that conflicts with state election law, which prevents poll challengers from having access to a voter’s Social Security numbers. Under state statute he said it is usually signature and birth year that are placed on an absentee ballot envelope.

If they cannot access that Social Security number, Kunko said, poll challengers are unable to do their jobs.

“There is nothing they can challenge if they cannot look at the envelope,” he said.

When asked for comment about the suit on Monday, Alex Curtas, communications director for the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office, said that the state has robust processes in place to ensure every vote is counted and that the integrity of the electoral process is maintained.

Curtas added those procedures have been in place for a long time or established through passage of SB 4, after a public rule making process.

“To have the Republican Party declare that duly elected County Clerks are purposefully deceiving the public is a worrying tactic ahead of a highly-charged election that has already seen far too many instances of intimidation and misinformation,” Curtas said.

He added that the Secretary of State’s Office is confident the absentee ballot processing is being carried out in accordance with state law.

Voters, he said, can trust that their vote will be counted and personal identifying information on their ballots will be protected.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301 or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.