Tales of voter intimidation. Record numbers of absentee ballots. A spike in COVID-19 cases. Threats of violence. Amid these challenges — and many more — we wanted to know just how prepared our state is for the most anticipated, contentious and high-stakes civic event in recent history. Some argue that democracy itself hangs in the balance. 

Can New Mexico handle a political event so huge, so fraught and so complicated?

The answer, experts say, is yes — although confidence in the political system comes with a very large asterisk in predictably unpredictable 2020. 

The affirmative vote came from more than a dozen politicians, policy wonks, pollsters, academics and fair-election advocates who talked to Searchlight New Mexico about key issues confronting voters. What’s gone wrong, what’s going right, and what can you expect? Here’s how we’re doing with just days to go.

A line of early voters outside the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.

Trump caravans, intimidation and Zoom bombs

Ten days ago, in a predominantly Hispanic community in Albuquerque, dozens of would-be early voters found their progress obstructed by a slow-moving caravan of cars and trucks flying Trump flags and jamming the streets around a polling place at 98th and Central. It’s unclear if the Oct. 17 procession was a deliberate act of voter obstruction or just a well-attended mobile MAGA rally, but the results were clear. “We learned that approximately 30 people who’d gone there to vote walked away,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a nonpartisan group dedicated to ensuring free and fair elections. 

It wasn’t an isolated incident. Ferguson said another 20 to 30 voters reported that they opted not to “run the gauntlet” of a different pro-Trump caravan in the South Valley that same day, near Isleta Pueblo. She and other election watchers told Searchlight they’ve received calls about similar instances around the state, from Roosevelt to Curry to San Juan counties; all of the calls, Ferguson said, have been about “Trump caravans.” 

And earlier this month, Searchlight reported on attempted voter intimidation in Grant County, where interlopers crashed a Zoom meeting attended by high-profile Democrats,  held up handmade signs containing racial slurs, swastikas and “Trump 2020,” and made veiled threats.

The events have taken place against a backdrop of anxiety and threats nationwide, creating a climate so extraordinary that a national Latino civic engagement group sued President Trump last week for federal election law violations, alleging that he is intimidating voters, encouraging vigilante violence and making threats of violence “terrifyingly credible.” The Oct. 21 complaint from the nonprofit Mi Familia Vota Education Fund argues that, among other threatening acts, Trump has encouraged supporters and white supremacists to go to polling locations to serve as “poll watchers.”

Echoes of these calls to action were seen Sept. 29 in a Facebook post by the Republican Party of New Mexico, in which state House Minority Leader James Townsend called on “patriots” to enlist as Election Day poll challengers. “We need an army,” the post read, adding that volunteers were necessary to “secure our vote” and prevent voter fraud.

Townsend failed to mention that poll challengers must be nominated by political party officials in each county and are strictly limited in number. 

Reached at home by phone, Townsend was asked if he felt the post was incendiary or misleading. (There is virtually no history or threat of meaningful voter fraud in the United States.) He replied, “The tenor of protecting the value of each ballot is something I support.”

Rising tensions in New Mexico and across the nation suggest that threats, whatever their tenor, are likely to continue. “We may see voter intimidation take place as we get closer to Election Day,” said Gabriel Sanchez, a University of New Mexico political science professor and election researcher.

Cause for concern? Of course. A looming threat to election outcomes? Most experts didn’t express that level of alarm, although many find themselves in a precarious position: They don’t want to minimize the potential threat to the democratic process, but they don’t want to scare away voters or give too much oxygen to potential lawbreakers.

In any case, officials and advocates said they are ready to stamp out whatever disturbances might go down between now and Nov. 3, as well as after the election, as necessary. The FBI, in fact, is setting up a command center in Albuquerque, where a federal prosecutor will keep an eye on voter intimidation, civil rights violations or other threats to the election process, the Associated Press reported. The ACLU also has attorneys at the ready. The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office is investigating the incident at 98th and Central, and local police who took reports about the Grant County Zoom-bomb incident also referred the case to the FBI.  

Alex Curtas, a spokesperson for New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, put it this way: “What Trump is talking about doesn’t align with our procedures. If there are people with AR-15s and Trump signs at the polls, that’s against the law, and poll officials can use their discretion to call law enforcement. There can’t just be roaming bands of vigilantes saying, ‘You can’t go to the polls.’”

If you witness or experience what you believe to be voter intimidation, call 866-OUR-VOTE or 888-VE-Y-VOTA (en Español), a voter-protection hotline provided jointly by Common Cause and the ACLU.

An elderly couple, who declined to provide their names, submit to a temperature check before voting early at the San Miguel County Clerk’s office in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Voting despite the virus

The pandemic might be keeping a lot of New Mexicans at home, but it’s not stopping them from participating in our most important democratic process. As of Oct. 23, the state was edging toward half a million votes cast. Pundits predict record-breaking participation.

“We had more turnout in the 2020 primary than we had for general elections for Obama or Reagan,” Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover said. “And this general election will have higher turnout. I am thrilled so far.” 

By “turnout” she means total votes, a lot of them mailed in. As of Oct. 25, New Mexico officials had sent out more than 380,000 absentee (aka vote-by-mail) ballots and received about two-thirds of them back, according to the U.S. Elections Project, which updates data from secretary-of-state offices nationwide. 

Citizens have rushed to vote early by mail or in person, in counties big and small. In Sierra County (pop. 11,000), nearly half of the registered voters have already cast their ballots, County Clerk Shelly Trujillo said.

Voters aren’t only fired up by the presidential election — they’re also energized by pivotal down-ballot races. Among them: the hotly contested battle in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, where first-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small faces Republican challenger Yvette Herrell; and the critical U.S. Senate race, in which Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a congressman since 2009, squares off against Republican Mark Ronchetti for a seat left vacant by Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (who is not seeking a third term).

Bud Shultz Sr. and Bud Shultz Jr. exit the Los Alamos County Municipal Building after voting early in the 2020 election.

Mail-in myths and ‘great faith’

No system is flawless, and the mail-in voting system is no exception. “Are we gonna have problems? Yes and no,” said Republican Janice Arnold-Jones, a candidate for the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission. “But I have generally great faith in most of our system.” 

Arnold-Jones, formerly a four-term state legislator, had a front-row seat on elections during her time on the legislature’s Voters and Elections Committee. Much of an election’s success falls on county clerks like Stover, she said. Despite being from the opposing party, she described Stover’s work as “exceptional” and spoke positively about county clerks in general. 

What is sparking distrust, however, is President Trump’s barrage of false attacks on mail-in voting. Contrary to White House claims, mail-in voting is secure and virtually fraud-free, the historical record shows. 

New Mexico also has fail-safe measures to provide protections, Arnold-Jones and others noted. 

Among them: If you fill out your ballot incorrectly, your county clerk is required by law to contact you within 24 hours so that you can correct it (per SB-4, a state bill passed in June to address election challenges during the pandemic).

If you receive a mail-in ballot but decide not to use it, you can still vote in person. All you have to do is show up at your polling place and sign an affidavit saying you haven’t voted already; the affidavit is recorded and ensures that no matter what, your vote in person is the only vote that’s counted.

Temporary election worker Joseph Banar disinfects a voting booth at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.

Skip the mailbox, trust the drop box

A few election officials in New Mexico expressed worries about the security of ballot drop boxes, which are provided to counties by the secretary of state (SOS). As Sierra County’s Shelly Trujillo told Searchlight, “We don’t need a drop box in our county. I don’t trust them. I don’t want one, honestly.”

The fears aren’t warranted, experts said. Rules about drop-box placement and surveillance are stringent; the boxes are secure and regularly checked by election officials. Their unprecedented use in this election season stems from the state’s desire to ease lines, reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and provide speedy ballot delivery. 

In fact, for the sake of speed, the secretary of state advises voters not to mail ballots after Oct. 27 — instead, put your ballot in a drop box to ensure that the county clerk receives it by the deadline of 7 p.m. on Nov. 3.

You can also hand-deliver your ballot to your county clerk’s office or drop it off at a polling location.

The U.S. Postal Service, by comparison, could be too slow. That’s especially the case in places like Santa Fe, where even in-town mail gets routed to Albuquerque for sorting, or in parts of southern and southeastern New Mexico, where mail goes to El Paso or Lubbock, Texas, for sorting. 

To find a local ballot drop box, check with your county clerk’s office or click here.

Voters cast their ballots in early voting at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.

Voting in person: Where and how

If voting in person is your preference or you just forgot to request a mail-in ballot, your polling place welcomes you — even in a pandemic. You can even register to vote through Oct. 31, during early voting, provided you qualify. And with few exceptions — such as polling places inside shopping malls and in areas where they’ve been consolidated at the request of tribal officials — virtually every polling place in every county will be operational. 

Provided the current spike in COVID-19 cases doesn’t scare away hordes of poll workers, polling places will be well staffed on Nov. 3. Bernalillo County alone has more than 1,000 poll workers signed up to help, plus a waiting list, Stover said. Locations are being sanitized thoroughly and often, voters told Searchlight.

The secretary of state provides comprehensive voter information and an online list of polling places (for a “where to vote” tool, click here). You can also get information on polling places from your county clerk (a list of them is here). For a list of precincts and polling sites on tribal lands, click here.

: No matter where you vote, be prepared to wait in a long line, outdoors. That’s because polling places can operate at only 25 percent capacity, meaning locations will be limited to official poll workers, volunteer poll watchers and challengers, and a few voters at a time.


Mask madness

Another potential snag: Despite stringent state rules about mask wearing, “no one will be denied the right to vote if they don’t have a mask,” Curtas said. It’s a tricky needle to thread for election officials, politicians and health advocates: Just as refusing to wear a mask could be seen as a form of voter intimidation, so, too, could insisting that voters wear a mask if they want to enter a polling place. 

Lonna Atkeson, a University of New Mexico political science professor and advisory board member with MIT’s Election Lab, explained it this way: “Public-policy-wise, wearing a mask makes sense; but on the other hand, voting is a right.” 

Election officials in all counties have been advised to make contingency plans for people who refuse to wear masks or can’t because of health reasons.

Some polling places will have masks on hand for people who forget to bring one. Others might have plans to direct mask-less people to a secluded area. If those options aren’t available, people who refuse to cover their nose and mouth still can go inside and vote, which could require the clearing of a voting location for a lone anti-masker.

“Look around the nation already,” said Brian Sanderoff, one of New Mexico’s best-known and most well-regarded pollsters. Some parts of the country are experiencing “five- to 10-hour lines,” he said. Throw in a handful of mask refusers — or a pro-mask-versus-anti-mask kerfuffle that leads to a police visit — and waits could get a lot worse.

: Dress for the weather. Pack snacks, water, a phone charger or a book. Don’t forget your mask: Wearing one can significantly reduce coronavirus transmission, science shows. And bite your tongue: Mask shaming or mask bashing at a polling place could be perceived as voter intimidation. If you don’t think you can keep your cool, use a drop box or hand-deliver your ballot. Polling places are for voting, not for airing grievances.

A man dozes while waiting in line for early voting at the Bernalillo County Visitor Center in the South Valley of Albuquerque.

When will we know who won? 

It’s no secret that a deluge of voters and absentee ballots can slow down the vote count. Just this year, in Santa Fe County’s primary, a last-minute dump of absentee ballots delayed the results by about three days. 

Clerks statewide learned from that experience and staffed up for the general election, sources on both sides of the political spectrum said.

But a few delays are still likely to happen, Sanderoff said. “On election night there’s always a couple of clerks having difficulties, and we won’t know the results of some close local races right away.”

Gabriel Sanchez, the UNM professor, offered another prediction. “It is highly unlikely that we will be able to declare a winner for president on election night,” he said. 

Manage your expectations — that’s what Sanchez advises. Election officials have had only a few months to revamp one of the most critical elections in history. “Our officials are doing a tremendous job with little time to plan,” he said. “I would stress that fact to the stranger who’s worried about the election being a fiasco.”

Mike Kessler is senior editor of investigations and projects at the Los Angeles NPR affiliate KPCC and its website, LAist.com. Host of the recently released podcast, The Running Man, from ESPN Investigates,...