Two New Mexico towns hope to avoid repeat Election Day controversies

HOPING HISTORY DOES NOT REPEAT ITSELF: Some voters in Rio Rancho, N.M., had to wait as long as five hours to vote in the November 2012 general election.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Two years ago, some voters in the third-largest city in New Mexico, Rio Rancho. had to endure waits of more than five hours on Election Day in a community where a lopsided number of voters are Republicans. The GOP accused Democrats in the county clerk’s office of intentionally trying to suppress the Republican vote.

At the same time, the Otero County clerk called in sheriff’s deputies into the southern New Mexico town of Chaparral after voters overwhelmed poll workers during the evening of the 2012 General Election in a precinct that’s majority Democrat. That incident led to allegations from Democrats of voter intimidation.

Will Election Day 2014 avoid similar incidents?

The newly elected county clerks in each respective area say there will be no rerun.

“As far as having confidence, I do,” said Denise Guerra, a Republican who succeeded fellow Republican Robin Holmes as Otero County clerk in January 2013.

“As far as I can see, it’s not going to happen again,” said Sandoval County Clerk Eileen Garbagni, a Democrat. “Everywhere you turn there will be a voting place.”

The Rio Rancho incident was well documented, with Albuquerque TV stations showing long lines of frustrated voters, some of whom had to wait until nearly midnight to cast ballots.

“We should not have a line,” Garbagni told New Mexico Watchdog. “It’s not going to be like it was in 2012, I can assure you of that.”

Two Republican hopefuls in the Legislature lost close races and GOP officials accused then-Sandoval County Clerk Sally Padilla, a Democrat, of purposely placing too many voting centers in areas of the county dominated by Democrats while not putting enough in Rio Rancho, where 80 percent of the county’s Republicans live.

“We did it right,” Padilla insisted in the election’s aftermath, but a lawsuit filed by the two defeated GOP candidates and an angry Rio Rancho voter ended up in federal court.

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge William “Chip” Johnson sided with the plaintiffs, calling the 2012 election in Rio Rancho “a debacle” and “a complete disaster.”

In blunt language rarely seen from the bench, Johnson excoriated Padilla, then-deputy county clerk Garbagni and county elections bureau director Eddie Gutierrez and declared, “It is clear that the intentional actions of those in charge of the 2012 Election led to the long voter lines which resulted in the disenfranchisement of voters.”

Click here to read the judge’s 22-page ruling.

Johnson issued an injunction ordering the Sandoval County clerk to establish 17 voting convenience centers in Rio Rancho for this year’s election.

DISENFRANCHISEMENT: A federal judge in New Mexico has ordered extra voting sites be placed in Rio Rancho, saying the community’s voters were disenfranchised when long lines developed during the 2012 election.

Garbagni said she had already decided to put 17 convenience centers in Rio Rancho before the judge issued his ruling.

Nonetheless, Garbagni’s office appealed the judge’s order, but lost in the 10th Circuit Court. Undeterred, the clerk’s office filed another appeal, only to be rebuffed again Monday.

If the county has already agreed to install 17 voting convenience centers in Rio Rancho, why appeal?

Garbagni said she couldn’t comment beyond what she said in a news release issued last week.

In it, Garbagni said, “If we didn’t fight this injunction, it could set the stage for the federal government to insert itself into any election in any county in New Mexico,” adding that the New Mexico Association of Counties support the appeal.

Garbagni also worried the judge’s order could lead to county taxpayers picking up the tab for attorney’s fees that “would likely be in the six-figure range.”

Republicans in Rio Rancho aren’t buying it.

“My question to (Garbagni) is, how much is the lawyers that were hired outside of the county costing to appeal this,” said Charlie Christmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Sandoval County. “I don’t know what these outside lawyers are charging them, but it’s got to be a lot of money … I think they’re throwing good money after bad at this point.”

Rio Rancho has been here before.

In Johnson’s ruling, Padilla testified there have been long lines in Rio Rancho “many, many times” in the past and a three-to-four hour wait was “the norm” prior to 2012.

“Our goal is to make sure all voters — Republicans, Democrats, independents and myriad other minor parties in Rio Rancho — should have access without having to stand for hours in line to get to the ballot box,” Christmann said.

“The election should go very, very well for us,” Garbagni said. “If anything, there’s going to be an overkill … I pray to God everything goes well.”

Raw feelings

The 2012 election-night controversy in Chaparral didn’t receive the attention the Rio Rancho incident garnered, but the feelings are almost as raw.

“I’m not confident things have been taken care of,” said state Rep. Nate Cote, D-Organ, who in the past has called for Otero County officials to place an early voting center in Chaparral, a town of about 15,000. “But I am confident things will go a little smoother because there will be fewer people voting” because 2014 is a midterm election while 2012 was a presidential election year.

To address the issues from the 2012 flap, Guerra told New Mexico Watchdog her office will bring in a mobile voting center to Chaparral on Nov. 1, three days before Election Day. The center will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“I’ve always been confident in my election workers,” Guerra said in a telephone interview. Guerra said she’ll have two additional employees in Chaparral to help out and thinks the mobile voting center will alleviate some of the burden on Election Day.

Cote remains skeptical.

“One early voting mobile van down there with that population is just not going to do it,” he said.

What exactly happened on election night in 2012 in Chaparral is in dispute.

Describing the crowd as “unruly,” Holmes called the county sheriff’s office. Democrats accused Holmes of overreacting and said the police presence — complete with crime scene tape — intimidated some voters. “People were not unruly at all,” Cote said, adding people were irritated after they “waited in line three or four hours to vote.”

Guerra, who was chief deputy clerk in 2012, said “there was a lot of chaos” she said was fueled in part by candidates registering people to vote using provisional ballots “knowing that their ballot wouldn’t count.” Guerra denied claims there were no Spanish translators available.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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