On Election Day last year, former Albuquerque resident Naty Posada left work early to vote in her new hometown, Chaparral, expecting the usual 30-minute wait before getting home to her kids. Instead, she spent all night trying to vote.
“It was a ridiculous line,” she tells SFR. “I was in line for three and a half [to] four hours.”
Two hours into her wait, Posada, tired of standing for so long in her work heels, watched as other people in front and behind her left without voting.
“I was agitated,” Posada says. “I was tired. I wanted to go home. It was cold and I didn’t have a jacket.”
She was ready to give up when Ariel Bickel, an advocate with the group New Mexico Vote Matters, encouraged her to stay in line. But when Posada finally got to the front, the election officer told her that she would only qualify for a provisional ballot.
According to Posada, the election officer tried to turn her away.
“I said, ‘I want to fill one out anyway.’ She said, ‘It’s not going to count,’” Posada says.
The voting site was also out of provisional ballot paperwork.
When Posada went outside, Bickel and her group, thinking she had finally voted, greeted her with a celebration. But Posada told them that she still hadn’t voted, and they spent the rest of the night waiting for the provisional ballot paperwork to show up and arguing with election officers and local sheriff’s deputies to get Posada back to the front of the line.
She didn’t get home until 11:30 pm.
“I have never had that type of an experience before,” she says.
State Rep. Nate Cote, D-Doña Ana, who represents the area, describes the scene in Chaparral that night with details of disabled voters unable to get to the front of the line and the Otero County Sheriff’s Department blocking off voting advocates like Bickel with crime scene tape (current Otero County Clerk Denise Guerra, who wasn’t in office during the 2012 election, adds that a partisan candidate was also talking to voters too close to the voting booth).
“Everything that could go wrong—or that could be done to possibly suppress the vote—happened down there,” Cote tells SFR.
A big part of the problem lies in how Chaparral’s residents are divided into two counties—Doña Ana and Otero.
“Doña Ana had early voting, adequate number of voting booths on Election Day, all the good stuff,” Cote says. “However, across the road, on the Otero side, there was a line that was four, maybe five hours long.”
Now, Cote has a package of bills designed to prevent such a catastrophe in the future. Yet one is being opposed by the very official who oversees New Mexico’s elections, Secretary of State Dianna Duran.
Duran, who served as Otero County clerk from 1989 to 1993, has connections to the same office that critics blame for the Chaparral fiasco.
“Let’s face it, that’s where the Secretary of State comes from,” Cote says. (Duran did not respond to SFR’s request for comment.)
One of Cote’s bills would require an early voting site within 50 miles of population areas representing at least 1,500 registered voters. (Last election, the closest early voting site for Otero County Chaparral residents was in Alamogordo, roughly 85 miles away.) A second bill would establish stricter guidelines for voting center staff and resources on Election Day.
Duran’s office has neither endorsed nor opposed the latter bill, but Guerra says it’s unnecessary because she’s already planning to add more staff for upcoming elections.
Duran’s office does oppose the early voting bill, arguing that the Chaparral mess happened because two voting precincts were represented by one election board and one polling place.
“In future elections, all that needs to happen is that Precinct 1 and Precinct 41 should be separated into two distinct polling places with two separate precinct boards,” Duran wrote in the bill’s fiscal impact report. “The creation of a separate voting site would waste precious election funds.”
Guerra agrees about the cost issue, citing numbers showing that the Doña Ana side of Chaparral had only 55 early voters last year. Guerra says such a low turnout doesn’t necessarily justify the cost of an early voting site, which can run around $8,000.
“It might cost too much,” she says. “It might not get voters out.”
But Bickel says the bill allows early-voting sites near small populations to be open on only five days, instead of the standard three weeks, which would save costs and help prevent long lines on Election Day. She says putting a dollar value on votes is cynical, if not unconstitutional (in 1986, the US Supreme Court ruled that election costs are not a sufficient reason to limit a person’s right to vote).
“If one voter in the state is disenfranchised, it’s one too many,” Bickel says.
Despite the opposition, Cote’s bills are gaining steam: Both have passed the House and, as of press time, the Election Day staffing requirements bill was headed for the Senate floor. (House Republicans added a voter ID amendment, which failed, to the early-voting bill.)
Chaparral wasn’t the only city with voting issues last year. Last week, a Rio Rancho resident and three Republican candidates filed a lawsuit accusing the Sandoval County Clerk of mishandling the process on Election Day.
“Clearly there isn’t any regulation and oversight,” Posada says. “How can somebody just tell a voter, ‘Your vote isn’t going to count, just go away’?”