The enormous interest generated by the 2008 presidential election, along with past discrepancies at the polls and New Mexico's status as a battleground state, has voter-rights advocates paying particular attention to how New Mexicans' votes will be counted on election night.
On election night, the Web site for the Secretary of State's Office posts unofficial election results by county, as they are available. That online election-night reporting is provided by the Tijeras technology firm Auburn SeeWolf. Its contract, however, is not with the state but, rather, with the Rio Rancho-based company Automated Election Services, which does have a contract with the Secretary of State for election services.
On election night, AES receives election results from the counties, which it then forwards to Auburn SeeWolf, which uploads the information to the Secretary of State's Web site.
Some voter watchdogs are concerned, however, there isn't enough transparency in the process.
"I'm not saying there is anything illegal going on…I'm just saying we need to know what oversight there is," Pat Leahan, director of the Las Vegas, NM Peace and Justice Center, says.
Secretary of State Mary Herrera says worries about the election-night reporting are completely misplaced.
"People are making a big deal out of everything this year," Herrera says. "Some people are going to question everything."
Election-night results, Herrera stresses, are not official.
The State Canvassing Board reviews election results and has until Nov. 25 to review ballots, at which time vote tallies become official. Official canvas numbers do not go through Auburn SeeWolf.
As for the unofficial election-night numbers: "The Secretary makes that information available as a courtesy," AES President Terry Rainey says. He, like Herrera, says voter groups are making something out of nothing this election season. "Transparency is in the eye of the beholder," Rainey notes, "and the end result is these are not the official results…I know it's not real popular to not have a conspiracy theory, but [Auburn SeeWolf] is a contractor that provides Web support services to a number of companies nationwide."
Auburn SeeWolf also is a contractor with defense industry ties. An online résumé for its CEO, Sandra Ryan, notes that she holds a top secret clearance with the Department of Defense, has worked as a physicist at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va. and also held a management position with Science Applications International Corp., a contractor that made news earlier this year when a federal jury found the company guilty of fraud.
Bev Harris, of the national nonprofit voter watchdog group Black Box Voting, is critical of the company's defense work.
"I don't like, at all, having any kind of defense-industry stuff overlapping with elections," Harris says.
The servers with the unofficial results are located in CEO Ryan's basement. Ryan did not return SFR's request for an interview, but AES President Terry Rainey acknowledged the servers are there but are secure.
"It's not like the servers are in someone's garage," he says.
Nonetheless, voter advocate Ellen Theisen of VotersUnite! says having those servers out of the public eye is just one more reason to be suspicious of how New Mexico is handling its vote tallying.
"There are some things that should be handled by the public," she says. "When private corporations are handling public information, it is no longer in the public domain. There is too much secrecy. And the Secretary of State should be held accountable for what's going on there."