New Mexico county wants to halt use of vote-count machines

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A Republican-led county commission in southern New Mexico is seeking to change the way ballots are collected and counted in the run-up to November’s mid-term election.

Otero County’s three-member commission includes Cowboys for Trump co-founder Couy Griffin, who ascribes to unsubstantiated theories that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Griffin was convicted of illegally entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds — though not the building — amid the riots on Jan. 6, 2021.

The commission voted unanimously Thursday to recount ballots from this week’s statewide primary election by hand, remove state-mandated ballot drop boxes that facilitate absentee voting and discontinue the use of vote tabulation machines in the general election.

The initiatives were proposed by Griffin and drew support from an advocacy group for “forensic” election reviews that have combed through Otero County election records and canvassed local addresses for registered voters in search of discrepancies in the 2020 election.

New Mexico uses paper ballots that can be double-checked later in all elections and also relies on tabulation machines to rapidly tally votes while minimizing human error. Tabulation equipment is subject to precertification and election results are audited by random samplings to verify levels of accuracy.

Though Trump won nearly 62% of the vote in Otero County in 2020, county commissioners say they are not satisfied with the results of the state’s risk-limiting audit of the vote count nor assurances by their Republican county clerk that elections this year will be accurate.

Otero County Attorney R.B. Nichols said the commission’s vote to get rid of vote tabulating machines and drop boxes is not binding on the county clerk. He warned commissioners that there are no provisions for a full hand recount in New Mexico’s election code and that moving forward would likely involve going to court to vet supportive documents.

He said the expense of even a partial recount would fall on the county if no irregularities are found. Alex Curtas, a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, said the commission appears to be reaching beyond its authority, in conflict with the state election code and other statutes.

County Commissioner Vickie Marquardt said she is not satisfied that future elections will be secure.

“Everybody keeps talking about the 2020 election and overturning the election,” said Marquardt. “I am talking about the 2022 election and the 2024 election and the 2026 election. If we don’t find out what’s going on, we’ll never know.”

The county commission abandoned a professional contract for a review of the 2020 election amid a U.S. House committee investigation into potential voter intimidation by door-to-door canvassers with intrusive questions about voting – but the review has persisted without contract under the work of David Clements and his wife Erin Clements with the support of the commission.

David Clements, a former public prosecutor and conservative public speaker, pressured the commission Thursday to demand access to the vote tabulators and computer coding for the machines to check whether there is a way to connect the machines to the internet and for other vulnerabilities.

“We don’t dispute that under the election code the secretary of state can select voting machines,” said David Clements, who bills himself as a traveling salesman for forensic election audits. “The question is what effect does it have on this commission to use something they know is not trustworthy. … At that point you all become culpable.”

State election regulators say it is wrong and misleading to suggest that vote tabulators are connected to the internet or other computer networks.

“It has become a popular point of disinformation to suggest that New Mexico’s vote tabulators are compromised because they are connected to the internet,” the agency said on its “rumor versus reality” website that aims to deter disinformation about elections. “Our air-gapped counting systems ensure that vote tabulators are never connected to the internet.”

Griffin is not running for reelection or any other office as his term expires this year.