There’s got to be a first time for just about everything. On Election Night, it was the time that New Mexico political analyst Brian Sanderoff made the wrong call.
The national press on ABC had already put a red checkmark next to Yvette Herrell’s name in the race for New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, and Sanderoff was on the air for KOAT Channel 7. Her margin over Democrat Xochtil Torres Small looked slim, but holding.
Sanderoff assumed that, like any other election night in any other county, the biggest county in the district had reported its absentee and early votes in the first data dump of the night. It was a little before midnight.
“When I went on TV, I said I projected Yvette Herrell would be the winner, but [that the margin] was going to narrow,” he says.
That assumption, repeated by most news organizations across the state including SFR, turned out to be incorrect.
He got an email at 1:38 in the morning from Albuquerque Journal reporter Dan McKay, who had just received a news release from the Secretary of State’s Office that explained some 8,000 votes from early and absentee ballots in Doña Ana County had not been entered into the reporting system.
“The minute I heard that, and I started getting calls at 7 in the morning from people, I said, ‘The outcome is going to change,’” Sanderoff tells SFR in a phone interview Thursday morning. “Simple math tells you. … If I knew those early and absentee votes were not in the mix, I would have known Xochtil was going to win.”
Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the county’s absentee ballots by 3 to 1, which, he knew, meant the uncounted ballots would swing the race back to Torres Small.
The seat was formerly held by Republican Steve Pearce, who gave it up to run for governor.
Sanderoff’s reputation for accuracy with interpreting election results couldn’t be more sterling. Since 1986, his Research and Polling Inc. has been New Mexico’s go-to for pre-election polling and other political nerdery. Just once before, in an Albuquerque ballot question about 20 years ago, he remembers making another bad assumption born of exit polling rather than returns. “That was the one and only time,” and it got corrected before presstime, he notes.
This time, with live TV, that was not so.
“What can I say? I feel bad any time this happens,” he says, “but frankly I did not lose that much sleep on it because I thought we did the best we could with what we had.”
Alex Curtas, a spokesman for the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office, wrote in the wee hours of Wednesday that Doña Ana County Clerk Amanda López Askin had “contacted the major party chairs to inform them of the process and to seek voluntary poll officials to help process the ballots.”
Sanderoff says it’s unusual that such a large county would not have a sufficient number of workers to begin counting absentee and early ballots as the law allows at 7 am on Election Day so that returns are ready when the polls close 12 hours later.
López Askin was appointed clerk in Doña Ana County last month after the elected clerk Scott Krahling resigned amid an investigation involving an affair with a coworker.
She told The Santa Fe New Mexican that the county had received far more absentee ballots than usual. In 2016, for example, there were just 3,456.
“I saw the fatigue, I saw the swollen hands from opening ballots,” López Askin said. “It was not reasonable or right to expect them to work throughout the night.”
She told reporters she had secured the remaining ballots for the night so work could resume Wednesday morning.
Current, unofficial results posted on the secretary of state’s website show Torres Small has 50.7 percent of votes, compared to 49.3 percent for Herrell. Of all the journalists and pundits in the state, Southern New Mexico independent reporter Heath Haussamen’s nmpolitics.net—along with The Daily Lobo—were among the only ones to outright cast the race in question on Tuesday night.