Unprecedented mail participation in Tuesday’s primary elections for major political parties in New Mexico is almost certain to spell delay for timely unofficial returns.
Ballots requested by voters and not delivered to county clerks or polling places before the 7 pm deadline on Election Day won’t get counted, but the mountain of mailed and hand-dropped paper ballots awaiting tabulation that did arrive on time could keep workers busy for many hours, or even days later.
Election results are always unofficial on election night. In fact, the state’s process allows for a three-week period during which an appointed board reviews tabulation, voter rolls, provisional ballots and other documents before certifying the official winner. Except in rare cases—like the 2018 Southern New Mexico upset that sent Xochitl Torres Small to Congress after Yvette Harrell claimed early victory—poll watchers can typically discern the victor as it gets toward bedtime and most results are reported.
It’s not likely to be so this time, warns Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.
“For sure there will be ballots that will not be counted on Election Day or well into the night on election night. It’s going to be important for folks to understand, particularly in very close races, we may not know what the unofficial results are for possibly even a couple days after Election Day,” she said in a Facebook video last week. “That is the nature of tabulating all these votes in a central location.”
Election administrators had asked the state Supreme Court last month to close all polling places and allow instead for all-mail voting due to the public health threats posed by in-person voting. The court ruled against the request and instead encouraged people to utilize absentee voting.
As of a report issued by the Secretary of State’s office Monday morning, county clerks had received 201,409 absentee ballots and 59,703 people had voted early in person. In Santa Fe County, that included 23,909 Democrats, 3,182 Republicans and 60 Libertarians who voted early or absentee.
Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar tells SFR she can’t even guess whether all those ballots will be processed and tabulated on election night. Ensconced at the county’s elections warehouse in southeast Santa Fe, members of the absentee board began the task last week of opening the ballot envelopes and worked through both days of the weekend as well as Monday.
State election laws and guidelines for county clerks allow the state’s 33 election administrators to have made some preparations to tabulate mailed and hand-delivered ballots, such as logging the day they arrived in the statewide voter software and separating ballots from their inner envelopes. The act of running those paper ballots through the scanning machines to record votes can’t begin until the morning of Election Day.
Voters who requested absentee ballots by mail but never got them can vote at any convenience center on Election Day, and those ballots will be tabulated on site rather than the central warehouse. Salazar says a vendor tasked with mailing the county’s ballots had sent out all the 39,062 requested ballots by Sunday, but numerous voters experienced delays with the post office and vendor leading up to the weekend.
“There is just a lot of work to do,” Salazar says Monday. “We can all point fingers all we want, but the fact is, no one failed to do anything. It’s overwhelming.”
Asked to rate her level of confidence in election night returns for the county, she says, “It’s to be determined. We don’t know… There’s a high possibility that we might not be able to get them tabulated that night or even 10 hours after.”
Complicating factors such as write-in candidates and provisional ballots also come into play, she notes.
Voting before Election Day this year has already topped figures by about 44% for the same time period leading up to the 2016 primary, when just over 23,000 voted absentee statewide and more than 117,000 voted early. That year, in Republican and Democratic primaries that featured a contest for governor, among other races, more than 188,000 people cast votes during Tuesday polling.
On this year’s ballot, the top of the ticket for Santa Fe Democrats (who comprise the bulk of voters here) rests on a list of presidential contenders who have all ceded but one. It includes seven candidates vying for a Congressional seat that stretches into several other counties, as well as a handful of contested legislative seats, the county clerk and treasurer and seats on the County Commission and Public Regulation Commission.
“Everyone else is going home from their election night parties and my office—and my staff and the county clerks and their staff—are still working for several weeks after that to make sure all the numbers add up and every single vote is tallied and counted accordingly,” Toulouse Oliver said.