County clerks, party leaders mull safety as voting begins in New Mexico primaries

Early voting underway for June 2 election

Hannah Grover Algernon D'Ammassa
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC  — How do you maximize voter participation while also keeping the public safe from COVID-19? 

Early voting for New Mexico's June 2 party primaries began May 5 at county clerk offices throughout the state.

The San Juan County administration building opened to allow people to vote and pay their property tax. 

Masks are handed out at the entrance of the polling place as voting opens up at the Doña Ana County Government Center in Las Cruces on Tuesday, May 5, 2020.

Throughout the state, extra precautions are being taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus — such as disinfecting pens used to mark ballots after each use and having voters sign their names on a digital pad using disposable popsicle sticks instead of a stylus. Poll workers wear masks and are separated from the public by transparent barriers.

By the afternoon of May 5, 71 voters had voted in person at the San Juan County Clerk’s Office, and County Clerk Tanya Shelby said she had sent out more than 2,600 absentee ballots, which was the first day the ballots could be mailed out.

Early voting is currently limited to just the county clerk’s office, but additional sites will open later this month at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, the Bloomfield Cultural Center and the Shiprock and Newcomb fire stations.

A group of New Mexico county clerks sought to convert the 2020 primaries to an all-mail election, similar to how the state now carries out special elections, in order to protect election workers and the public from transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

In April, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that out, instead advising Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and the county clerks to encourage voters to apply for absentee ballots. 

Encouraging absentee voting

“Due to the contagion of the (coronavirus) and the very real potential of poll workers and voters to contract the COVID-19 disease through the in-person voting process, we are encouraging voters to vote absentee for this election,” Shelby said during a San Juan County Commission meeting May 5.

During a pandemic, absentee voting enhances public safety by reducing human interaction and opportunity for transmission, she has said.

Shelby said 60% of the poll workers in San Juan County are age 60 or older.

The state Republican Party opposed automatically mailing ballots to voters on the rolls, citing a potential for fraud, though it stated before the Supreme Court that it favored closing in-person voting in light of the public health emergency.

In this Friday, Jan. 10, 2020 photo, Republican Party of New Mexico chairman Steve Pearce sits in party headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M., after unveiling the party's plan for the 2020 election. Pearce said New Mexico Republicans says they will embark on an aggressive strategy to win over Hispanic and Native American voters in 2020 as the party experiences it most diverse primary races in recent history.

On May 5, state Republican Party chairman Steve Pearce said conducting the election by absentee ballot rather than mailing ballots out to voters was a more secure process and is consistent with the law.

As for in-person voting, Pearce expressed confidence that it could proceed safely.A Hobbs resident, Pearce said he had visited the Lea County clerk's office two weeks ago. 

"They already had their spacing done," he said. "If you're going to conduct business, you have to come in, tell them who you are, then go back out in the hall and keep your spacing out there. They were keeping the congestion down in the clerk's office."

Pearce said he and his wife had applied for absentee ballots this time around, though they preferred voting in person. 

Exploring virtual campaigning

Since the Supreme Court ruling, the state Democratic Party has launched an online hub through its website to coordinate candidates, campaign staffers and volunteers, sharing information and best practices for campaigning during COVID-19 and the public health orders banning social gatherings. 

"We're inviting folks to go to our website to look up what events are happening — they're all virtual — what conversations we can enter and give people opportunities to volunteer in a really different way than we've been doing in past times," state Democratic chairwoman Marg Elliston said. "We've been working with our county parties to have virtual forums, invite candidates and have town halls as well."

Voting polls open up at the Doña Ana County Government Center in Las Cruces on Tuesday, May 5, 2020.

Elliston said the party's $40,000 digital ad campaign encouraging voters to apply for absentee ballots was showing "click-through rates" (evidence viewers are clicking links within the ad to visit the New Mexico Secretary of State's website) that were double that of other political ads. 

The increased online activity may also be increasing the Democrats' numbers, as the party reported May 5 it had seen more than 2,500 new registrations since February.

While Pearce expressed confidence that county clerks can safely organize in-person voting following public health guidance, Elliston — who said this will be her first time voting with an absentee ballot — disputed whether voting in person was prudent or safe. 

"The more people you come in contact with, the greater your chance of contracting the virus. I think it's delusional to think otherwise," she said. "I really encourage people to stay home and vote from home."

Libertarians see opportunity

The Libertarian Party of New Mexico, which achieved major party status in New Mexico in 2018 due to turnout for presidential candidate (and former New Mexico governor) Gary Johnson, also views the unusual primary election as an opportunity to recruit and organize. 

The party's chairperson, Chris Luchini, said Libertarian registration has more than doubled since 2018 while its candidates were drawing interest beyond its registered voters. The goal for this year has been to encourage more independent voters, officially affiliated as "decline to state" in New Mexico, to affiliate as Libertarian. 

Luchini called the county clerks' court petition for an all-mail election "farcically illegal" and said that the election process should have been decided by the state Legislature in a special session. 

"They could have had a one-hour special session to approve a change for this election only," Luchini said. "The idea that the legislators can’t be bothered to do their job while every grocery store, grocery checker and shelf-stocker and delivery person is doing their job strikes me as elitism of the first order. Do your damned job. Have a special session."

A special session dealing with the pandemic's economic impact and the state's budget is anticipated in June. 

Luchini reported that he, too, would be voting absentee, but in regard to in-person voting, he said, "People get to make their own decisions."

Voter information for the primaries

New Mexico's primary elections will take place on June 2, 2020. 

Absentee voting

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver's office encourages voters to participate via absentee ballot.

All New Mexico voters registered with a major political party should receive an absentee ballot application in the mail. The application must be completed and returned before an absentee ballot is issued.

The ballot must be requested no later than May 28, though earlier requests are advisable to allow for delays in postal service. 

Voters can also access their absentee ballot the following ways: 

Absentee ballots may be returned by mail (postage paid by the state) to your county clerk’s office, or in person at an alternative voting location, mobile alternative voting location, or any Election Day polling location no later than 7 p.m. on June 2, 2020. 

In-person voting on June 2

Some sites normally used as voting convenience centers have closed due to the coronavirus. While there will not be a reduction in early voting sites in San Juan County, only nine voting convenience centers will be available on election day.

These sites include:

  • San Juan County Fire Operations Center: 209 S. Oliver Drive in Aztec
  • Bloomfield Cultural Center: 333 S. 1st St.
  • Farmington City Hall: 800 N. Municipal Drive
  • Farmington Museum at Gateway Park: 3041 E. Main St.
  • Farmington Public Library: 2102 Farmington Ave.
  • Kirtland Youth Association: 39 Road 6500
  • La Plata Community Center: 1438 N.M. Highway 170
  • Central Consolidated School District Business Office: South of U.S. Highway 64 in the Old Shiprock High School A-Gym
  • Newcomb Fire Station: Mile marker 56.5 on U.S. Highway 491

Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at

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