Better, Faster, Stronger Elections

Santa Fe County was super slow on primary results

If you watched election returns in Santa Fe County Tuesday evening, you probably stayed up pretty late. It took more than an hour after polls closed for the public to see partial results, and for many races, final results didn't come in until after 11 pm.

The delays here marked a sharp contrast to elections in other parts of New Mexico. Neighboring counties, including Bernalillo, posted partial results minutes after the last voters ticked off their ballots.

Early votes and absentee ballots played a big role in the wait. According to Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar, election workers uploaded 11,662 early voting and 1,129 absentee paper ballots prior to entering primary day results to the secretary of state’s system.

Steve Fresquez, chief deputy of the Bureau of Elections, says part of the holdup stemmed from hand-delivering a memory card containing early voting results from a warehouse in the southeastern part of the city to the clerk’s office downtown. Fresquez says the first results weren’t uploaded until about 8:30 pm.

Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver says her election workers processed most of the county's 9,886 absentee ballots before election day. They also uploaded 48,106 early voting results into the reporting system by Tuesday afternoon.

“We’d rather start early and finish early, rather than start late and finish late,” Oliver tells SFR.

When asked whether the clerk’s office received complaints about late results, Salazar replies, “The only people discussing that are reporters. Because everyone who knows what it takes to run an election, they know there are many details involved with this.”

She adds, “We don’t have an enormous staff.  We had an employee retire recently. My staff pulled together and got the job done. The most important thing is everything got done.”

Santa Fe County also differs from larger jurisdictions in that it still uses an older method for signing in voters. The way our system works right now, registered voters must cast their ballot at their assigned polling station, which is tied to the precinct in which they live. If someone shows up at the wrong station, tough luck; ballots may only be cast in the designated spot.

On primary day, SFR encountered several voters who attempted to vote at the wrong polling station, only to be redirected to another location.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Bernalillo, Sandoval and Doña Ana counties all use something called voter convenience centers, which allows any registered voter to vote at any polling station. 

The county hopes to transition to the more contemporary method by 2018, according to Salazar.

"It's much easier," she says. "We would love it."

Salazar says she paid close attention when the city of Santa Fe tried voting centers for its March municipal elections. The city consolidated 33 precinct-specific stations to twelve centers, where anyone could go. While the system didn’t seem to increase voter turnout, city clerk Yolanda Vigil reported that for that election, her office received fewer calls from residents unsure of where to vote. 

As poll workers at voter convenience centers use the internet to look up voter registration records, one hurdle for Santa Fe could be poorer network connections near the north and south county boundaries. Salazar says that's one big reason why the county has not made such a switch yet. Voters using both the convenience center and the precinct model still use paper ballots.

One option around problems posed by internet connectivity issues could be a hybrid system, wherein the county uses both voter centers closer to the city and precinct-based polling stations in rural areas, according to Kenneth Ortiz, spokesman for Secretary of State Brad Winter.

If county commissioners approve that plan, local dollars won't be funding any new equipment. The New Mexico secretary of state is required to provide counties with all the resources for running elections.

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