In a workshop for Election Day's presiding judges where most people look well over 50, Amanda Herrera stands out.
The 34-year-old's hair is gathered into a neat updo and her eyes glitter with a pop of perfectly blended purple eyeshadow as she tilts her head to listen to her 7-year-old daughter whisper in her ear. A colorful fleece blanket falls momentarily from her lap before she scoops it back up.
Yet the ease and confidence of Herrera's demeanor make it clear that she's no newcomer. She jumps in now and then to help answer questions posed by other presiding judges. In fact, she's worked the polls in nearly every election since she was 18, driven by both a dedication to community and democracy and by family tradition.
This year, the unique challenges of the upcoming election seem to energize rather than intimidate Herrera.
"I'm ready to make sure everything runs smooth on Election Day. Just get people in and out as soon as possible, that's my goal," she tells SFR with a big smile. "I'm already thinking about all the details…it's a lot of little things, and I like to be prepared."
As presiding judges, Herrera and the other two dozen people in the room will be in charge of maintaining order and calling the shots at Santa Fe County's busy polling locations on Nov. 3.
It's a critical role in any election. But the circumstances of the pandemic mean additional responsibilities and anxieties as they take precautions against COVID-19 and brace for an atmosphere of heightened political tension and increased scrutiny.
"This is going to be a very special election," says Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar at a training session for poll workers late Monday evening. In recent months she's warned her office may not have a complete count on the Tuesday of election night.
Officials say voter turnout has already hit record highs for early voting. With only two weeks left until the general election, 440,001 New Mexicans have already cast ballots.
According to the nonpartisan elections watchdog group Common Cause, a record-breaking 40 million people have voted early across the country, 80% by mail.
In Santa Fe, 17,359 people had voted early in person and 22,546 had turned in absentee ballots as of Thursday morning.
On Election Day, the presiding judge is the first person in the polling station at 6 am and the last person out the door after the polls close at 7 pm. It is their responsibility to make sure the tally of ballots for each machine is correct at the end of the day, and to hand deliver each ballot to the County Clerk's Office for the official count.
The judges are also the only people who are legally allowed to authorize a provisional ballot or sign an affidavit for a voter who requested an absentee ballot but wants to vote at the polls. And no one else can void a ballot if a voter makes a mistake and needs to start over.
Despite the title, presiding judges don't have to have any professional legal experience in their regular jobs. Instead, they are Santa Fe County residents from all walks of life who are appointed by the county clerk to the Election Board for their precinct based on prior polling experience and party affiliation. (The clerk is required to balance the number of appointees between the major parties).
It's a job that tends to attract people from both political parties who are highly dedicated to the ideals of the democratic process and who come back to work the polls year after year.
"This is something where we are able to give back in a very important way…It means a lot to me to do this public service and let people get their voices heard," Herrera tells SFR, while her daughter Julianna tugs at her sleeve.
The little girl is starting to get restless after spending hours sitting patiently as Salazar's staff explains how to turn on the ballot tabulating machines, what to do if a ballot is rejected, how to hook them up to special Braille tablets and other gadgets that make voting accessible to people with disabilities, and so forth.
As a single mom, Herrera says the easiest childcare option during the late night training was to bring her daughter along. But it's also meaningful to her that her daughter understands the importance of the democratic process.
"I want her to see it, to know how the process works," she says.
For Herrera, election work is a bit of a family tradition.
"I've been doing this pretty much my whole life," she says.
Herrera was born and raised in Santa Fe, and she remembers her mother working countless elections when she was a little girl. She was often allowed to come along and would sit with her mother behind the tables at the polling station "back when kids were still allowed."
"My mom was really passionate about making sure everyone got the chance to vote, no matter who they were voting for," she recalls.
Herrera says she's cajoled her sisters into working the polls in the past, and hopes her daughter absorbs the importance of democratic participation. Unlike in previous years when voters were required to cast their ballot at the polling location in their specific precinct, in this election voters may use any Voter Convenience Center in the county.
One silver lining to the challenges of this election, says Herrera, is that it seems to be drawing more young people into the process.
"I've never seen another young person here before ever, and I'm really inspired to see someone else young here tonight," she says, pointing out one other woman in her thirties.
Herrera will be the presiding judge at Turquoise Trail Charter School—the polling location for one of the largest precincts in the county—where she'll have nine other poll workers under her charge.
"It's kinda fun," she admits, telling SFR that she's excited for the job.
She has one concern, though—that voters might try to wear clothing or masks with the names of their preferred candidates emblazoned across them, which would be against the law that prevents "electioneering" within 100 feet of a polling location, or to refuse wearing masks at all. It's a concern for all of the presiding judges at this week's training, they spent at least 20 minutes discussing the issue.
Herrera says she'll call on experience from her two regular jobs—one with the state and one at Total Wine and More—to keep order and calm in the polling station on Election Day.
Until then, voters can cast a ballot early in person or drop off their absentee ballot at Abedon Lopez Community Center, Christian Life Church, Town of Edgewood Administrative Office, Max Coll Corridor Community Center, Pojoaque County Satellite Office, Santa Fe County Fair Building, and the Southside Library from from noon to 8 pm Tuesday through Friday and on Saturdays from 10 am to 6 pm through Oct. 31.
The Santa Fe Convention Center is open for early voting from 8 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday.
On Election Day, the voter convenience centers will be open from 7 am to 7 pm at the following locations:
Amy Biehl Community School
Benny J. Chavez Community Center
Chaparral Elementary School
Christian Life Church
El Camino Real Academy
El Rancho Senior Center
Galisteo Community Center
Glorieta Pass Fire Station #2
Gonzales Community School
Hondo Fire Station #2
La Cienega Community Center
Mac Coll Corridor Community Center
Nambe Community Center
Nambe Pueblo Tribal Administrative Building
Nina Otero Community School
Pojoaque Community School
Salazar Elementary School
San Ildefonso Pueblo Visitor Center
Santa Fe County Fair Building
Santa Fe County Fire Station (La Tierra)
St. John's Methodist Church
St. Joseph's Parrish Hall
Stanley Cyclone Center
Tesuque Elementary School
Tesuque Center Intergenerational Center
Tony E. Quintana Elementary
Town of Edgewood Administrative Office
Turquoise Trail Charter Elementary