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County expects plenty of scrutiny Election Day

Chaves County poll worker Daniel Johnson answers a woman’s questions Saturday morning at the Roswell Mall voting location. Saturday was the last day of early voting. Election Day is Tuesday. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Election Day 2020 will be one of the most observed voting days in recent Chaves County history.

Challengers from the major political parties and poll watchers intend to be at some of the county’s 11 voting locations on Tuesday to observe, according to Chief Deputy County Clerk Cindy Fuller.

“We have received notice from the Secretary of State Office that we will have watchers. And we have been contacted by the Republican and Democratic Party that they will have challengers,” Fuller said. “We already have seen a few challengers observe our early voting process.”

She said that the Clerk’s Office staff won’t know for sure how many watchers and challengers to expect until the people show up with their required credentials.

She also said that a member of the Democratic Party has indicated an intention to be present as a challenger with the absentee board as it begins to process somewhere between 3,566 and 4,078 absentee ballots starting Monday.

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The first number represents the absentee ballots returned by Saturday afternoon. An additional 512 absentee ballots had been requested but not yet returned.

Poll watchers, election challengers and observers are all allowed by New Mexico statutes. Organizations appointing watchers must notify the New Mexico Secretary of State, which then notifies the county clerks. Poll challengers are appointed by the county or state chairs of political parties, said Alex Curtas, communications director for the Secretary of State.

While none of these outside parties can have access to confidential voter information, watchers and challengers can observe voting, review voter lists and signature rosters, and look at voting machines. Challengers also have the ability to question some processes, such as whether voter application forms have been filled out correctly or whether voters are asked correct questions by poll workers.

Watchers sign up in droves

According to a list provided by the Secretary of State, Common Cause of New Mexico has appointed eight people in Chaves County as watchers for the general election.

Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause of New Mexico, said the nonpartisan group concerned with government accountability and reform has been operating in the state since the 1970s but saw unprecedented interest expressed by volunteers for the 2020 election.

“We typically have 100 to 150 people volunteer. This year we had over 1,000 people respond across the state. We actually had to turn the sign-up sheet off,” Ferguson said. “To give you perspective, in Texas, they had 1,600 people or so, and in Maryland they had about 500 people.”

Because of the number of volunteers, this is the first time that the group has been able to send poll watchers, poll monitors and roving monitors to all counties and all tribal lands in New Mexico. Monitors, she said, work outside the polling locations.

“One of the top things I think they are concerned about is making sure that with everything going on with the pandemic that there is allowed to be safe access so that it is a peaceful process,” she said.

Curtas said that poll watchers have to be registered voters in that county and only one is allowed at each voting location. For challengers, one from each political party is allowed at each polling site.

Fuller said that staff and poll workers are prepared for the scrutiny and expect a day with few or no problems.

She said her staff has coordinated with the Chaves County Sheriff’s Office and that deputies are called when necessary to maintain order. She said that has only happened on a few occasions during early voting when voters did not want to follow rules prohibiting items with political or candidate messages.

“We haven’t seen much of that in the early voting process,” Fuller said. “We are just hoping that we won’t see any of that on Election Day. I can’t really speak to how people are going to react to the results, but as far as our office is concerned, we are just here to run a fair, accurate, transparent election.”

She did ask for voter patience, if there is a large turnout on Election Day, a possibility given that about 47% of registered voters already have turned in ballots and same-day registration was occurring at a clip of about 20 people a day from Oct. 6 to Saturday.

“Just be patient with our poll workers on Election Day,” she said. “You know, they have stepped up to the plate to help out Chaves County with this election and we appreciate them. We give them a ton of information and they do get paid, but it is not very much for the time and effort they are putting in and the things they have to deal with, so please be patient with that.”

Beyond election night

Unlike some states that can begin to process tens of thousands of absentee ballots only on Election Day or that have extended the due date for absentee ballots beyond Tuesday, New Mexico and Chaves County expect that most of its political races and most of its votes will be counted by the end of Tuesday.

“It is our goal to be fully reported by 9 o’clock on election night,” Fuller said. “Now when I say fully reported, that is not going to include provisional results, but that is going to be pretty close.”

Provisional ballots are given to voters at polling sites when there are questions about their voter registrations or about whether they already voted by absentee ballot or at another location. Those ballots are either counted or discarded after they have been vetted by Clerk’s Office staff and the county canvassing board, which in Chaves County is the Chaves County Board of Commissioners. That group is due to meet to decide about provisional ballots and certify county results at 2 p.m. on Nov. 10.

Because Chaves County only has a maximum of 4,112 absentee ballots to count, Fuller feels certain that the absentee board will have those counted by Tuesday night. She said the board processed more than 5,000 during the primaries within two days.

Likewise, Curtas said the state is expecting that results for most races will be known on Tuesday or by the end of the week. In this area of the state, the 2nd Congressional District race between Democrat Xochitl Torres Small, the incumbent, and Yvette Herrell, the Republican challenger, is the one that could be too close to call on Tuesday.

“In general, we are confident that we will know the results of most races by the end of election night,” Curtas said, “of course with the caveat that all election results are unofficial until three weeks after the election when the state canvas board certifies the results.”

State canvassing is scheduled to occur Nov. 24.

Mindful that people hearing or reading snippets of news elsewhere might be concerned to hear that ballot counting continues beyond Tuesday, Curtas stressed that work with provisional ballots beyond Election Day is typical and that absentee ballot counting might take more than a few days in some parts of the state.

“Senate Bill 4 mandates that absentee precinct boards must stop at 11 p.m. on election night and resume counting the next morning to prevent fatigue, which is why there could be more counting after Election Day,” Curtas said. “But we will be very publicly communicative on election night if there are outstanding ballots on election night so people will know what to expect.”

Current tallies

As of Saturday afternoon, early voting and absentee ballots totaled 18,412.

Of the 3,566 absentee ballots returned, 1,567 are from Democrats; 1,439 from Republicans, 25 from Libertarians and 535 from other parties or unaffiliated.

There have been 14,846 people who have participated in early voting. That includes 9,785 Republicans; 3,273 Democrats, 78 Libertarians and 1,710 from other parties or unaffiliated.

With a higher-than-normal turnout so far, Fuller said she is optimistic that will mean strong participation on Election Day as well.

“We are hoping to have a large turnout on Election Day,” said Fuller. “We have seen that with early voting and we are hoping that continues.”

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

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

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