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Governor questions online process for New Mexico absentee ballots

November 28, 2018

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez on Tuesday called into question thousands of applications for absentee ballots submitted online this year, foreshadowing what could turn into a legal battle over the outcome of tight races in an election that dealt big blows to her party.

In an unusually contentious meeting of government officials responsible for certifying state election results, the outgoing two-term governor questioned whether the state’s process for voters to apply for an absentee ballot online is even legal.

But then Martinez accepted the results without raising any specifics challenges to the election’s validity or any particular claims of impropriety.

Before agreeing to certify the election results, Martinez seemed poised to question the outcome of one race where a Democrat won in a mild upset.

She cited a letter from an attorney representing Republican congressional candidate Yvette Herrell, who lost her race in the southern end of the state to Democrat Xochitl Torres Small by about 3,700 votes.

The letter questioned how the Secretary of State’s Office handled a new online application process for absentee ballots, arguing that the applications require signatures.

Voters do not sign when they apply for an absentee ballot on the internet. Instead, the Secretary of State’s Office says a voters’ application is paired with that voter’s signature in the state’s database of licensed drivers. Voters who are not in that database cannot apply for an absentee ballot using that online portal.

Martinez said she was not convinced, raising concerns that signatures are needed to help verify the identity of a person requesting a ballot.

“What’s in place to prevent fraud?” Martinez said at one point.

Pat Rogers, a Republican attorney, said the process implemented by the Secretary of State’s Office simply goes beyond what is allowed by law.

“This is a statutory process. The statute wasn’t followed,” Rogers said.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver pointed out that her office issued its policies on the online application process in March after a public meeting meant to gather comments and complaints. She said the proposal did not face any public opposition.

Martinez, though, kept up the fight.

“Let’s be real,” Martinez said. “How many people really show up to some of these hearings?”

Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, also suggested the online application is more secure than the paper application, given that a voter’s personal information is matched against records in a state database.

To Toulouse Oliver, the public’s use of the online system to apply for an absentee ballot makes it easier for New Mexicans to vote.

“It’s interesting and unfortunate these concerns — such as they are — are being brought to the table after an election,” Toulouse Oliver said after the meeting.

This year’s turnout was high for a midterm election, at 56 percent, she said. That was up from 40 percent in 2014.

Regardless of how state law on the process is interpreted, the absentee ballots obtained through online applications do not appear to be enough to swing Herrell’s race.

Deputy Secretary of State John Blair said about 16,500 of these ballots were were cast in the election. That included about 2,800 ballots in the contentious 2nd Congressional District race between Herrell and Torres Small.

Even if all those ballots were discounted, Torres Small would still be the winner.

Herrell has not conceded, however. At the request of her campaign, a state judge has called for the impounding of absentee ballots from Doña Ana County. The largest county in the congressional district, Doña Ana was overwhelmed by an outsize number of absentee ballots this year.

The letter to Toulouse Oliver that Martinez cited Tuesday suggested Herrell’s campaign is preparing for a review of ballots. But her campaign has not raised any specific claims of election fraud.

The canvassing board, which includes Martinez, Toulouse Oliver and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura, authorized three recount elections in tight legislative races.

There will be a recount in House District 22, in the East Mountains, where Republican Rep. Gregg Schmedes is ahead of Democrat Jessica Velasquez by about 150 votes.

There will also be a recount in House District 63, in Eastern New Mexico, where Republican Martin Zamora is leading Democratic Rep. George Dodge by 27 votes.

Those recounts are scheduled for Dec. 4.

The third recount, to be held Friday, is in House District 20 in Albuquerque, where Democrat Abbas Akhil is ahead of Republican Rep. Jim Dines by 115 votes.

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