RIO RANCHO — New Mexico enters its most serious election season in decades without guidance from the Secretary of State’s office on how to ensure that all New Mexicans get to vote, county clerks and other local officials say.
At issue is a lack of direction from Secretary of State Mary Herrera on how elections officials should set up alternative voting sites on Native American lands, as well as instructions on restoring the right to vote to convicted felons.
A spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office says the two rules are being worked on but he did not know when they would be completed. Asked if they would be issued before the general election, spokesman James Flores said, “We’re not committing to that.”
The lack of direction complicates an already tense situation in New Mexico in which local election officials are struggling with an election-year surge of new voter registration applications, while also preparing for a historic general election that starts in less than three weeks with absentee voting.
The absence of guidance from Herrera’s office may have serious consequences on the election’s outcome and could even lead to violations of the constitutional rule of “one person, one vote,” officials say.
A cardinal rule of elections is to make sure each voter is treated the same, says Denise Lamb, the elections director for Santa Fe County and a former state director of elections.
“If in one county a voter is treated one way and in another county the voter is treated another way, … it creates the problem of unequal treatment,” she says.
Rules issued by the Secretary of State are important tools to help ensure that doesn’t happen.
“We need to know what’s going to be acceptable on the state level and approved by the Attorney General,” Chaves County Clerk Rhoda Coakley says.
“[Elections officials] don’t have anyone leading them, if you will,” adds state Sen. Dianna Duran, R-Tularosa, who is a former county clerk. “They don’t have any directive saying this is the proper process to follow.”
Native American Vote Affected?
So far the Secretary of State’s office has not issued a rule fleshing out a law passed in 2007 that allows alternative voting sites on Indian lands throughout the state, if the extra polling places are requested by tribes or pueblos.
Such alternative sites would supplement existing voting sites on Indian land, making it more feasible for tribal members to vote. Many live in rural areas and have to travel long distances to reach the nearest ballot box, officials explain.
Fran Hanhardt is the county clerk in San Juan County and oversees voting on parts of the Navajo Nation reservation. She says her office is having to scramble to accommodate a request by a Navajo chapter house for such a site without knowing if she’s doing it correctly.
“I am flying by the seat of my pants,” she says.
Just one county south, elections officials in McKinley County are handling alternative voting sites in a totally different way, says Rick Palochak, the county’s Director of Elections.
His office will be deploying a mobile alternative voting site, which will open in Crownpoint, near the Navajo Nation, and remain open for one week before moving on to Zuni Pueblo, he said.
Because the Secretary of State’s office hasn’t issued guidelines, there are no directions on how to store ballots when the site is closed, a situation that unsettles Palochak.
“I am still concerned about the security of the ballots,” Palochak says. “God forbid, someone breaks into it.”
Laurie Weahkee, lead organizer for the Native American Voters Alliance, says the lack of guidance could potentially effect voting access by Native Americans.
Access to the polls “could potentially be arbitrary,” she says, based on the relationship that a given Native American group has with its county elections officials.
“In some areas there are better relationships, and it wouldn’t be a problem,” she says. “In some areas there could be a more tense relationship and could prevent access.”
Felons’ Right to Vote
Hererra’s office has also not told local elections officials how to restore voting rights to convicted felons, despite a law passed several years ago reinstating that right for felons who have met the requirements of their sentences.
The Legislature updated the law in 2007, including a requirement that the Secretary of State lay out in detail how felons’ right to vote must be restored.
The inaction by Hererra’s office could cause some convicts who have met all of their obligations to still be denied the right to vote by county officials who have not been provided with appropriate guidelines.
“I just read the other day a big article how there’s a big push by national organizations working to register people,” says Lamb, the former state elections official. “You’re going to have these national organizations wanting to know how we are [restoring felons’ rights to vote]. There could be an effect.”
James Flores, of the Secretary of State’s office, did not respond to questions about why Hererra had not taken action on these issues or whether this inaction might have an effect on the November election.