Democrats and Republicans urge early voting to avoid the pitfalls of the primary

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.

Reject Birtherism 2.0

Before Donald J. Trump was president, he repeatedly demanded to see President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. A leader in a “birtherism” movement that openly called into question Obama’s citizenship, the bigotry by the then-New York developer and reality TV show celebrity helped propel him into the presidency in 2016. Is it any surprise then that this week Trump, now president, is reprising his role as Birther No. 1? In a press conference Thursday, President Trump gave credibility to racist conspiracy theories that call into question Kamala Harris’ eligibility to run as Joe Biden’s running mate.

Even if Albuquerque isn’t the next Portland you should pay attention

Federal agents are coming to Albuquerque, but officials have assured residents that New Mexico’s largest city isn’t the next Portland. In Portland, protests for racial justice have continued nonstop since the killing of George Floyd in late May but had decreased in size, according to the local paper, by the time the Trump administration sent in federal agents early this month, ostensibly to protect federal property and guard public statues. That injection energized the protests, leading to nightly confrontations as throngs of new and old protestors clashed with camo-wearing, unidentified police roaming the streets. The Oregon Attorney General, responding to accounts, has accused federal agents of whisking people away in unmarked vehicles without probable cause in at least two instances, and two federal watchdogs have opened investigations. 

Images of tear gassed crowds and burning statues in that Pacific Northwest city have flashed across the country, putting to bed the wisdom of thinking that a show of dominance can be a calming force. But those images are likely one goal of a president seeking re-election on a law-and-order platform. I anticipate more than a few campaign ads over the next three and a half months featuring clashes between federal agents and Portlanders with a man’s voice intoning order against chaos and violence in America’s cities.

Spending in New Mexico primary highlights dark money at work

As the Democratic primary in New Mexico’s third congressional district heated up in May, two mysterious groups– Avacy Initiatives and Perise Practical– began spending a combined $300,000 to support Teresa Leger Fernandez, now the Democratic nominee. The groups ran positive, even glowing advertisements about Leger Fernandez, but didn’t disclose who paid for the ads. Few details could be found about them online. This “dark money” spending drew significant criticism from other candidates, who condemned Leger Fernandez for not calling for removal of the ads. 

But a review by New Mexico In Depth of Federal Election Commission filings suggests the real goal was to deny another candidate in the race—Valerie Plame— the win by boosting the prospects of the Leger Fernandez campaign. 

It’s not uncommon for groups to spend money to support one candidate in order to prevent another candidate from winning. But when groups don’t disclose their donors, voters are left in the dark about the motives behind such efforts. 

“Our voting public is incredibly busy, and doesn’t have time to do research on every single one of the candidates,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico.

Oil and Gas plays big in elections, despite COVID-19

Crude oil storage tanks dot the landscape in San Juan County. Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth

The oil and gas industry may have cratered over the last few months due to a steep drop in consumer demand brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still a major player in shaping New Mexico’s state Legislature. 

Oil companies have pumped $1.1 million dollars into 2020 New Mexico primary election campaigns since last October. The industry distributed $180,000 of that total since March 11, the date the first COVID-19 case was identified in New Mexico and the economy subsequently began rapidly shutting down. 

The industry contributes large amounts to New Mexico politicians every election cycle, and runs its own campaigns independently as well. Such political spending by the industry occurs whether the oil industry is in one of its notorious “bust” cycles, or booming. Over the last couple of years, the industry has been booming, fueling an injection of billions of dollars into the state budget. 

Kathleen Sabo, executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, said the sheer size of the industry, and its importance to the state budget, gives it a great deal of influence. 

“Most legislators seem to be very careful around the industry,” said Sabo, “it’s not partisan.” Sabo said efforts to regulate the industry can generate comments at the statehouse from both sides of the aisle about “killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Indeed, New Mexico In Depth found in 2019 that no regulatory bills targeting oil and gas were successful during the legislative session without the blessing of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, despite strong Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate and a new Democratic governor. 

Its influence goes beyond campaign contributions, Sabo said.

Fewer polling places present challenges for Native voters

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.

Western states lead the way in vote-by-mail elections

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.

COVID-19 upends election planning

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.

Redistricting in NM explained in 14 minutes

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.

Struggle, chaos, litigation, great cost: NM redistricting

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.