At the Sept. 18 Española rally for Barack Obama, Gov. Bill Richardson joked: “I told Sen. Obama just moments ago that we can guarantee, in Rio Arriba, 102 percent of the vote!”

It remains to be seen if New Mexico’s past problems with voter irregularities—in Rio Arriba County andelsewhere—have become a joking matter. A massive surge of voter-registration drivesleading up to the Nov. 4 election, combined with a recent court ruling regarding voter-registration groups and the discovery of fraudulent voter-registration cards in Bernalillo County, indicate otherwise.

There has been a massive voter-registration push this political season; volunteers for Barack Obama’s campaign have been particularly ubiquitous. All in all, Santa Fe County Chief Deputy Clerk Denise Lamb says the county clerk’s office has registered more than 400 people as voter registrars—people who are allowed to register other people to vote. Most of these people work for organizations focusing on voter drives.

Registrars are required to turn in voter-registration cards, once they are filled out, within 48 hours. This requirement was the focal point of a recent legal challenge. On Sept. 17, US District Judge James Browning upheld the 48-hour requirement, which had been challenged by

(SWOP), the

, the

, and the

. These groups and others say the 48-hour requirement hampers their efforts.

“Not only has SWOP felt the burden of this onerous law,” Robby Rodriguez, executive director of SWOP, tells SFR via e-mail, “but other organizations that rely on volunteers to register people to vote, have also been forced to completely stop or dramatically scale back their voter-registration efforts, as we have now done.”

But Lamb says the ruling will keep some groups from holding onto voter-registration cards. She points to a 2004 situation in which Rock the Vote held voter-registration cards until after the deadline.

“We had 25 or 30 young people excited about voting for the first time,” she says, “and they didn’t get to. It’s very sad. And it makes me mad when that happens.”

Voter registration, in general, has re-emerged as a partisan touchstone for the 2008 election, much as it did four years ago. The dismissals of US Attorneys, including former New Mexico US Attorney David Iglesias, was tied to an overall GOP drive to investigate voter fraud.

Albuquerque lawyer Pat Rogers pushed for voter-fraud investigations then and also attempted to intervene in the recent legal challenge on behalf of the Republican Party of New Mexico. Rogers has been particularly critical of the

(ACORN), which has been center stage in voter-registration problems across the country. In 2006, four ACORN employees were indicted for sending false voter-registration forms to Kansas City, Mo.’s election board. Last year, the King County, Wash. canvassing board revoked nearly 2,000 fraudulent voter registrations submitted by seven ACORN employees, who were later charged in the largest case of voter-registration fraud in the state’s history. Unlike other groups, ACORN pays people to register voters.

ACORN, however, was not a plaintiff in the challenge to the Secretary of State’s Office over the 48-hour rule. Nonetheless, Rogers believes “these were groups that were shilling for ACORN” and that because of ACORN’s past problems, “they were careful not to include the 800-pound gorilla in the proceedings.”

Lawyer John Boyd, who represented the plaintiffs, dismisses the rhetoric. “The Republicans are trying to get everyone freaked out about voter registration,” he says, noting that even when such groups receive fraudulent information, at worst, “it’s just a pain in the ass” for election officials.

Such is the situation for Bernalillo County, which reported, the day before Obama’s Española rally, that it had received 1,100 fraudulent voter-registration cards. While there is no information, yet, on where those cards came from, Matthew Henderson, ACORN’s New Mexico head organizer, acknowledges some could have come from his group. ACORN, he says, has registered 75,000 New Mexicans during this election cycle. While the group separates suspect forms into a separate stack, he says, it’s ultimately up to county clerks to decide which are valid.

In the case of Bernalillo, County Clerk Maggie Toulouse-Oliver notified the district attorney, Attorney General and US Attorney Offices about the bogus voter-registration cards. “If they want to conduct an investigation,” she says, “that’s their prerogative.”

Whether New Mexicans will actually have problems at the polls, of course, remains to be seen.

Executive Director Steven Robert Allen says there’s so much at stake for New Mexico on Nov. 4—three US congressional seats, one US Senate seat and, of course, five coveted electoral votes, that every issue related to voter integrity is under scrutiny.

“When you’re in a swing state like New Mexico,” Allen says, “the problems get magnified times 100.”