The June primary election will continue as expected with a small addition.
Tuesday evening, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled the 2020 primary election will continue with in-person voting, but all registered voters will receive absentee ballot applications by mail.
In late March, in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic, 27 county clerks, including Valencia County Clerk Peggy Carabajal, petitioned the court to allow the secretary of state to pivot the primary to an all-mail election by sending ballots out to registered voters without an application requesting one first.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said while no one can deny the devastating affect the virus has had and continues to have, the reality is, such an action is prohibited by state law.
“… a mail ballot shall not be delivered to any person other than the applicant for the ballot,” Nakamura said Tuesday evening. “That being said, there is no prohibition to the secretary of state or county clerks from mailing out the applications for absentee ballots.
“It is an undisputable fact in-person voting poses a substantial health risk,” she said.
The court ordered the SOS to mail all registered voters an absentee application and to ensure in-person voting complies with the public health orders issued by the state.
At this time, the governor has limited gatherings to five people or less, and for individuals to keep 6 feet away from other people to maintain a social distance that will hopefully cut down on the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
With just 21 days before early in-person voting is due to start at the county clerk’s office in Los Lunas, Carabajal said there are still unknowns going into the primary.
“At this point, we’re not sure what kind of election we can conduct,” Carabajal said. “We are set to start early in-person on May 5 in our office and early voting at three sites on May 16.
“Our biggest concern is our poll workers and officials. We’ve had many of them already tell us they aren’t willing to risk the exposure.”
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According to the petition filed by Albuquerque attorney and state Rep. Daniel Ivey-Soto on behalf of the clerks, Valencia County is set to hire 125 temporary poll workers for this year’s primary, with 100 of them 60 and older — a category identified as being high risk for COVID-19.
“We have to be very careful how we do this,” the clerk said.
Last summer, the Valencia County commissioners approved 15 voting convenience centers for the 2020 primary, each of which would require three to four poll officials.
Ballots are due to be delivered to military and overseas voters by Saturday, April 18, while voting in the clerk’s office is set to begin Tuesday, May 5, and early voting begins Saturday, May 16.
Carabajal said voters can submit an absentee ballot application at any time, and it is her understanding ballots will be mailed out to those who qualify starting May 5, as was planned.
“One concern we do have is people who haven’t updated their address on their voter registration,” she said. “People need to update them so they can get these applications and we can send out the ballots as soon as possible.”
Voters can update their mailing address for the anticipated absentee ballot application by visiting the secretary of state’s website — sos.state.nm.us — or by calling the Valencia County Clerk’s Office or bureau of elections at 866-2073 or 866-2080.
The Valencia County administration building, including the clerk’s office, is currently closed to walk-in customers.
On Tuesday, after the court’s ruling, Carabajal said there would be a conference call Wednesday afternoon among the county clerks and SOS to clarify next steps for the upcoming primary.
“We will know more after that,” she said. “We just want to do everything we can to protect the voters of Valencia County and the public.”
Across the state, there are 568 election-day polling locations already approved by the county commissions in each county, and in 30 of the counties, 168 early voting locations.
Many of these locations, such as community centers, churches, schools and libraries, are currently closed and clerks “have no guarantee these locations will be reopened and available when they are needed for voters … during early voting or election day,” Ivey-Soto’s petition read.
The remaining six county clerks, the Republican Party of New Mexico and 31 state legislators signed on to a motion to intervene, asking the court to deny Ivey-Soto’s petition for an all-mail election.
Locally, the only Valencia County legislator to be named in the motion to intervene was Rep. Gayle Armstrong (R-49) of Magdalena.
“This decision by the court ensures that the health and safety of every voter and worker is protected, while making sure that our election will not be susceptible to fraud,” said Republican Party of New Mexico Chairman Steve Pearce. “We are pleased that the justices recognized this and that we can proceed with a fair and free election in a safe environment.”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.