After the coronavirus pandemic and record turnout led to shuttered polling places and mountains of absentee ballots slowing the count in June’s primary election, New Mexico county clerks say they’re hiring more election workers and opening more places to vote in person for the general election. Still, there is anxiety about how the system will handle what many across the political spectrum are calling “the most important election of a lifetime.” Most believe it will take longer in 2020 to know some of the winners, particularly in New Mexico’s hotly contested southern congressional district. And the presidential election, nationally, appears unpredictable as well. Across the country, political strategists who have been encouraging absentee ballots for months have recently shifted to pushing early in-person voting. In New Mexico, public officials and advocates have coalesced around a common mantra: Vote early and be patient while the votes are counted.
As the state gradually reopens from its coronavirus closure, it’s not only nurseries, bike shops and clothing stores that must figure out how to do business while maintaining social distancing—county clerks across the state are conducting their first primary election during a pandemic. But the number of polling places has been slashed, mail service has been interrupted in some areas and voting advocates are concerned that there will be folks, especially in Native American communities, who could be left out. Indian country has been hit hard by COVID-19, as NMID reported in mid-May. Native Americans represent 58 percent of the state’s cases. As a result, many Pueblo and tribal governments have closed their lands to non-residents and established curfews in an effort to slow transmission of the virus.
As the first wave of COVID-19 hits communities during primary season, states are still resolving how to hold elections in the middle of a pandemic. Voter advocates and organizers see the primaries as a test run, with many assuming that the November general election will also need to adapt to COVID-19. Since April, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, a virologist, and epidemiologists have predicted that another, potentially worse, wave of the virus will hit communities this fall and winter. Universal vote-by-mail is being promoted by secretaries of State and voter advocates alike as a clear solution to balancing voter access and public health concerns. In this area, the West leads the way.
The COVID-19 pandemic rapidly upended the lives of New Mexicans in the past month. And if a majority of the state’s county clerks get their way, their primary election will be upended as well, with widespread voting by mail rather than traditional voting at polling sites.
The pandemic, which has swept the globe and so far led to more than 20,000 American deaths, is picking up speed in New Mexico.
Over the past month, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham through a series of emergency executive orders has largely closed down the state’s economy and ordered New Mexicans to stay home. Public health officials project that the number of illnesses in New Mexico will peak in mid to late May. No New Mexico public officials to date predict when the measures mandating New Mexicans stay home and congregate in groups no more than five will be lifted.
A majority of county clerks (27 of the 33 clerks statewide) want to mail ballots directly to registered voters, rather than endanger the health of election workers and voters by holding a statewide election with more than 700 polling sites on June 2. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver supports the idea.
But the state Republican party, along with 31 Republican lawmakers and six county clerks, say a better option to directly mailing ballots to voters would be to promote widespread use of absentee voting, a two-step process available to all New Mexico voters, so that there are many fewer people showing up to the polls in person.
In the middle is the state Supreme Court, which will hear arguments for and against a petition by the county clerks Tuesday.
Check out Gwyneth Doland hitting the highlights of the report she did for us on the state’s history of redistricting on the latest episode of New Mexico In Focus, which aired this weekend. For those not up on what redistricting entails, every 10 years New Mexico state lawmakers are assigned the task of redrawing district lines on the map for the Legislature, the U.S. House and other offices, based on population changes the U.S. Census Bureau records. But New Mexico’s redistricting process isn’t governed by many rules and it’s done largely out of the public eye, Gwyneth found. After you watch the New Mexico In Focus segment, read Gwyneth’s report and essay to learn more about this arcane process. We promise you’ll feel better informed about one of the most important jobs our Legislature performs.
See that howling coyote? We hired a local artist to draw this critter as a nod to the political cartoon Elkanah Tisdale drew in 1812, skewering Massachusetts’ then-governor, Elbridge Gerry, who had signed a redistricting bill designed to strengthen his party’s grip in the state Senate. More than 200 years later, Tisdale’s sketch of a menacing salamander remains the iconic image of a practice we didn’t have a name for until he penned it: gerrymandering. But state Senate District 39 looks more like a coyote than a salamander. It’s a creature that represents another aspect of what happens when sitting lawmakers draw their own districts.
Boxes of signed democracy dollar petitions were delivered to the Albuquerque City Clerk in early August 2017. Albuquerque’s beleaguered public financing program could become more attractive to people running for mayor or city council if a proposition before voters in next week’s election is successful.
The changes would boost the amount of money going to mayoral candidates whose campaigns qualify for public money. Plus, Albuquerque residents would be allowed to direct additional money to mayoral and city council candidates of their choice, in $25 increments.
The proposal is being heatedly debated in the final days before the election. Detractors say the program will cost Albuquerque a lot and favor incumbents or other candidates backed by organized groups with resources to help them. Proponents say public financing, including this effort to strengthen Albuquerque’s system, would help diminish the influence of money on politics, and encourage more people to run for office.
Problem in search of a solution
The proposal would update Albuquerque’s original public financing program for mayoral and city council candidates created in 2005 with high hopes of decreasing the influence of private money in elections. The current system requires candidates to demonstrate they have some measure of community support before receiving public money, through gathering qualifying contributions and signatures from a certain percentage of voters.
There was optimism in the air and a packed crowd at the Santa Ana Center in Rio Rancho Monday evening to greet President Trump who visited New Mexico for the first time as commander in chief. Before Trump took the stage, Republican Party Chair Steve Pearce pumped the crowd with the claim that Trump could win New Mexico in 2020, holding up 2016 national election results as evidence. NM GOP Party Chair Steve Peace tells Trump rally that Trump can win New Mexico in 2020. Without former New Mexico governor and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson playing the spoiler, “It would have been a two or three point race,” Pearce said of the 2016 presidential election that ushered Trump into the White House. Johnson won a little more than nine percent of the New Mexico vote in 2016.
In the wake of the 2019 legislative session, people across New Mexico are taking stock of how much Legislature-approved money to fund infrastructure will end up in their communities. There’s a lot of it–$933 million in the main capital outlay bill and an additional $60 million in “junior” spending bills drafted after lawmakers realized how flush the state is in oil money. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has until April 5th to sign legislation. Before she signs off on the infrastructure spending, called capital outlay, it’s possible she’ll use her line item veto authority to strike some of the projects. She asked state agencies to “vet” projects, according to an email sent last week to potential recipients by the Department of Finance and Administration.
Christa Frederickson just after she voted in the 2016 primary election. Christa Fredrickson is a registered Democrat in Doña Ana County, but says that’s only because she needed to be a Democrat in order to vote in a primary election a few years ago. She has more than once changed her party affiliation to vote in a particular primary election, because she thinks they’re important. But she doesn’t consider herself a Democrat or a Republican, or a Libertarian for that matter. Those are the major parties in New Mexico, currently.
When Wilhelmina Yazzie thinks back to elementary school, she remembers feeling shame in not speaking “proper English.”
These days, Yazzie feels pride in speaking Navajo and wants the same for her children when they grow up. “That would be one of the great accomplishments, if we get (Native language classes) in all the schools,” Yazzie said a few weeks ago to talk about a historic ruling in a lawsuit that bears her name. However, the school district her children attend – Gallup McKinley – gets just $25,000 in Indian Education Act funding to serve about 9,000 Native American students. “That is pennies. There’s hardly anything we can do with that to meet the cultural and linguistic needs that are required under this law,” said Superintendent Mike Hyatt.