Otero County is the latest local front in a war that is dividing Republicans over the 2020 election.
The County Commission in southeastern New Mexico has paid for a $50,000 study they call an audit of the county’s election results, provoking headlines after voters complained that volunteers who are going door-to-door quizzing them are asking them who they cast ballots for — a charge one of the organizers has denied.
While the county commission has authorized paying for the audit, it’s not an official audit like the ones completed after each election by the Otero County Clerk, the Office of the Secretary of State or an independent firm contracted by the state agency.
Leading the effort is a group called New Mexico Audit Force and an ally is Otero County’s most famous commissioner — Republican Couy Griffin, the Cowboys for Trump leader awaiting trial on federal criminal charges of entering and disorderly conduct in a restricted building related to the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
To be clear, not everyone likes what’s going on. Republican Otero County Clerk Robyn Holmes is not a fan.
“I’ve been against this from the beginning,” Holmes said Thursday of the canvassing. “Our elections are audited three times.”
On Griffin, Holmes is not shy sharing her opinion.
“I think that if you’ve ever heard about one of our commissioners, he likes being in the limelight. He thinks Trump won and if he didn’t it’s a conspiracy.”
If this debate around the need for additional audits sounds familiar, it’s because the disagreement in Otero over whether to verify the 2020 results yet again is reminiscent of the faceoff between former President Donald Trump and his followers who distrusted the results and Republican elections officials who defended them in battleground states like Georgia.
Otero County is no battleground, though. And the so-called audit is not about overturning the 2020 election results.
Otero is reliably Republican, a place where Donald Trump won the presidential race by 26 points and Republican Vickie Pruiett Marquardt defeated her Democratic opponent in the County Commission District 3 race by even more, although the District 53 House of Representatives’ race featuring Democrat Willie Madrid and Republican Ricky Little did require a recount it was so close. Madrid won.
No, what the canvassing is about is suspicion that something sinister and shady might have happened in Otero County in 2020 and New Mexico Audit Force is there to uncover it.
That is, if you believe former New Mexico State University assistant professor David Clements. Clements was terminated last year for refusing to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and accused NMSU of “brainwashing and creating an environment of fear” by requiring face coverings indoors on campus, according to the Las Cruces Sun News.
During a two-hour presentation on the night of January 13 at the meeting where Otero commissioners approved paying for New Mexico Audit Force’s study, Clements offered conspiracy theories and culture war rhetoric to sell the commissioners on the idea of an outside group verifying the 2020 results. He told them they should consider scenarios whereby some of their votes might even have been skimmed off through nefarious means. In other words, they might have won by bigger margins if Democrats or someone allied with them, had not stolen votes.
“What we’re seeing is the phenomenon, this thing called the Blue Wave .. everyone’s talking about the Blue Wave,” Clements told commissioners. “It’s as if someone is preparing us for the eventual reality of Progressive Marxists running our government. At the local level it’s happening. Your school boards are bringing in all kinds of garbage.”
Despite County Attorney R.B. Nichols’ counsel against approving the money because it might violate state election code and put the county at risk legally, the commissioners sided with Clements and Griffin.
And the commissioners are now making big news.
Voters are complaining that Audit Force volunteers are asking them who they voted for, not the means by which they voted — in person, by mail or absentee. That voters might feel harassed or intimidated by strangers knocking at their doors and asking them about the 2020 election was of such concern that Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and Attorney General Hector Balderas, both Democrats, issued a joint advisory this week making sure voters understood their rights.
Included were these reminders:
- Who you vote for on your ballot is secret. No one, not even election administrators, can tell what your ballot choices were in any election.
- You are not required (nor can you be compelled) to provide information about who you voted for, why you voted, any personal information, or what your voting experience was like to anyone.
- You are not required to participate in this so-called “audit” or provide any information unless you choose to do so.
Erin Clements, wife of David Clements and one of the leaders of New Mexico Audit Force, told New Mexico In Depth that no one is asking voters who they voted for. She provided the script of questions volunteers are given and the instructions she uses to train them before sending them out.
“Before we go out I give half an hour to an hour of training,” she said.
Despite those assurances, Holmes, the county clerk, said her staff is fielding calls from angry or confused residents who say canvassers are indeed asking them who they voted for. Holmes has instructed staff “to take names and numbers” and connect aggrieved voters with the county attorney, she said.
While Holmes said she’s washed her hands of the effort, her office will make thousands of ballots available next week for Audit Force volunteers to scan so they can be analyzed by Echomail, a Massachusetts company that contracted with the County Commission and hired Audit Force.
“We have a certain location where we can allow 20 people who can bring in scanners,” Holmes said, but Audit Force must pay up first before the scanning takes place.
The hope is to use those scanned ballot images to compare against images produced by the voting machines to see if there are discrepancies, said Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai, Echomail’s founder, although it’s unclear whether Echomail will gain access to Otero County’s voting machines.
Echomail participated in last year’s high-profile review of ballots in Maricopa County, Arizona, that found no fraud despite myriad allegations that fraud cost Trump the election in Arizona. That process cost millions of dollars. The fifty thousand, plus whatever additional costs Otero County spends on overtime at the clerk’s office, is much less.
The size of expense didn’t stop Nichols, the county attorney, from raising the question of “taxpayer value” during the January commission meeting, however.
“We’re talking about almost $50,000, which is not an insignificant amount,” he told commissioners.
Fifty thousand is just under 1% of the county’s general fund, according to the county’s 2021-22 budget.
That prompted Griffin to couch his support as an obligation to his constituents.
“Should I honor my oath and be loyal to the people or cow to the state and say ‘Oh no I might get sued, or I might get in trouble,” Griffin said to Nichols. “What would you do?”
You should do what you believe is upholding your oath, Nichols said, before he added “there is a responsibility to the taxpayers, however, to spend money in a way that is productive and not wasteful.”
“I don’t think there is any more productive way to spend tax dollars to make sure our elections aren’t compromised.”
A couple of amens rose from the crowd.
My hunch is Nichols is onto something, Griffin, not so much.
Don’t hold your breath for Otero County’s study to reveal skimmed votes or fraud or evidence of progressive Marxists taking over our government.
Let’s hope, too, that canvassers aren’t violating Otero County’s voters’ right to keep their ballot secret when they’re going door to door. And that the experience of strangers questioning them on their doorstep doesn’t make some voters hesitant to vote in the future.