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WED: Voter rolls are becoming the new battleground over secure elections, + More

Maggie Toulouse Oliver, New Mexico secretary of state, testifies as the Senate Judiciary Committee hears from election officials and Justice Department officials about the rise in threats toward elected leaders and election workers, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
J. Scott Applewhite
Maggie Toulouse Oliver, New Mexico secretary of state, testifies at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.

Voter rolls are becoming the new battleground over secure elections as amateur sleuths hunt fraud - By Morgan Lee And Anthony Izaguirre Associated Press

A group has been impersonating government officials, harassing New York residents at their homes and falsely accusing them of breaking the law, state officials have warned.

But what sounds like a scam aimed at people's pocketbooks is actually part of a shakedown with a much different target: voters.

State prosecutors have sent a cease-and-desist order to a group called New York Citizens Audit demanding that it halt any "unlawful voter deception" and "intimidation efforts."

It's the type of tactic that concerns many state election officials across the country as conservative groups, some with ties to allies of former President Donald Trump and motivated by false claims of widespread fraud in 2020, push to access and sometimes publish state voter registration rolls, which list names, home addresses and in some cases party registration. One goal is to create free online databases for groups and individuals who want to take it upon themselves to try to find potential fraud.

The lists could find their way into the hands of malicious actors and individual efforts to inspect the rolls could disenfranchise voters through intimidation or canceled registrations, state election officials and privacy advocates warned. They worry that local election offices may be flooded with challenges to voter registration listings as those agencies prepare for the 2024 elections.

John Davisson, director of litigation at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the concern reflects the competing interests over voter data – a need to protect voter rolls from cybersecurity attacks against the desire to make them accessible so elections are transparent.

"It's not surprising that this is a battleground right now," he said.

Baseless claims of widespread voter fraud are part of what's driving the efforts to obtain the rolls, leading to lawsuits over whether to hand over the data in several states, including Maine, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.

In New York, a warning from the state elections board preceded the cease-and-desist letter from the state attorney general's office. Voters in 13 counties had been approached at their homes in recent weeks in an apparently coordinated effort by people impersonating election officials, in some cases wielding phony IDs, the board said. Residents were confronted about their voter registration status and accused of misconduct.

In one instance, people wearing identification badges accused a woman at her Glens Falls home of committing a crime by apparently being registered to vote in two counties, said Warren County spokesman Don Lehman. But the woman had already filed to change her registration and canvassers were apparently using out-of-date information, he said.

"She was quite shaken by the whole thing," Lehman said. "She did nothing nefarious at all. Either these people don't understand that or understand how the process works, but it seems like they were quite accusatory."

State prosecutors found no evidence that any of the those contacted had committed voter fraud or any other type of crime, they said in their warning letter.

NY Citizens Audit emailed a statement that dismissed as "absurd" concerns that its canvassers might have impersonated an official or harassed anyone. Instead, the group urged election officials to investigate "each of these millions of suspected illegal registrations."

"We train our people to do legal canvassing, and if ever verified, voter intimidation would be completely unacceptable and against our policy," NY Citizens Audit Director Kim Hermance said in the statement.

One of the most ambitious groups, the Voter Reference Foundation, was founded after the 2020 presidential election by Republican Doug Truax of Illinois with a goal of posting online lists from every state. The VoteRef.com database so far includes information from 32 states and the District of Columbia and is run by Gina Swoboda, a former organizer of Trump's 2020 campaign in Arizona.

A federal trial is scheduled to start later this month over the group's fight to access and use New Mexico's voter registration list.

The group also sued Pennsylvania, which refused to hand over the information and said that publishing it would put every registered voter at greater risk of identity theft or misuse of their information, said the state's Office of Open Records.

Truax declined to speak to The Associated Press, but has said in a statement on the Pennsylvania case that, "We have a crisis of confidence in America when it comes to election results, and the answer is more transparency, not less."

The head of elections in New Mexico, Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, fears many voters might withdraw from registration lists as personal data is posted online. Her office cites email inquiries about how to cancel voter registrations during a short-lived canvassing effort by election activists last year in southern New Mexico.

"Voters can and should expect a reasonable amount of privacy," said Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat. "What Voter Reference is doing is saying, 'If you have doubts about the election and who is registered to vote and who is voting, here is every voter's information. Go out and figure it out for yourself whether these people are real.'"

The Voter Reference Foundation argues that federal law is on its side, citing public disclosure provisions of the National Voter Registration Act that require states to make a "reasonable" effort to keep the registration lists free of people who died or moved away. The foundation also invokes free speech and due-process rights.

Nearly every state prohibits the use or transfer of the lists for commercial purposes, while several confine access to political candidates, parties for campaign purposes and some government activities.

In March, New Mexico banned the transfer or publication of voter data online, with felony penalties and possible fines of $100 per voter.

Virginia data was removed from VoteRef.com after Republicans and Democrats united last year to ban online publication of registrations.

In Maine, an ongoing legal dispute over privacy and the use of voter lists is pitting state election regulators against a conservative-backed group that has been highlighting and litigating what it says are shortcomings in election systems for a decade. It has assembled voter rolls from multiple states.

The state historically provided voter registration lists to candidates and political parties before being sued in 2019 for failing to provide its voter list to the Public Interest Law Foundation. In 2021, Maine's governor signed a bill allowing the voter registration lists to be turned over to additional organizations, but with a stipulation that no voter names could be published in a way that compromises privacy.

The restrictions interfere with comparing lists across states, said the group's president, J. Christian Adams, whose case against the state is scheduled for legal arguments Thursday at a Boston federal appeals court. Adams, a Republican, served on a commission Trump convened after his 2016 win to investigate voter fraud. The commission was disbanded without any finding of widespread fraud.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, said residents sharing details about voters, including addresses, is a bad idea.

"In an era of conspiracies and lies about our elections, integrity of voter information is hugely important," she said. "We want to make sure that no voters are targeted or harassed or threatened because of their decision to register and cast a ballot."


Associated Press writers David Sharp in Portland, Maine, and Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, also contributed to this report.

‘Time crunch’ to get 2022 Black Fire repair work finished - Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

New Mexico’s second-largest wildfire in history started in May 2022, and massive flooding raged through southern New Mexico for months after.

Yet, still in and around the Gila National Forest sit useless cattle fences that were burned or flooded out of the ground, charred logs, debris and erosion that’s clogging up waterways near farming and ranching communities.

On Sept. 22, the state’s Department of Finance and Administration approved $2 million for local officials to use for disaster repair projects, said agency spokesperson Henry Valdez. He said the state set aside $1 million for the Sierra Soil and Water Conservation District and $1 million for Grant County.

The state will reimburse those local groups at a later date.

Even private landowners, like ranchers, who have struggled to find any financial relief to fix massive fire and flood damage are expecting some aid.

The two grant recipients have through June 2024 to do the repair work — nearly nine months from now.

That’s because lawmakers allocated the funds through the state budget, which gives entities a year to spend the funding that became available in mid-June.

A few hold-ups kept the Black Fire relief funds unavailable over the summer.

Instead of going to the state Department of Finance and Administration — the agency with the power to distribute the funds — lawmakers sent the $2 million to the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

The agencies transferred the funds to the finance department in July.

Then it took another two months for the state to approve the grants.

The Sierra Soil and Water Conservation District and Grant County had to first submit projects for approval through the Department of Finance and Administration before the agency gave the okay on the grants.

Sen. Crystal Diamond Brantley (R-Elephant Butte), who represents Sierra County, said at an interim committee meeting in late September that it’s a headache for these local officials to have to ask for permission before doing every project.

“Remember this is in response to an emergency,” she said.

She also voiced frustration that this is all done through reimbursement, meaning local officials have to first find the money and cover costs upfront.

“That’s difficult for them to do,” she said. “And so we’ve really kind of tied their hands.”

Valdez said once local officials request reimbursement and send in the appropriate forms, the Department of Finance and Administration will process the requests. He didn’t specify a timeframe on how long that could take.

“Timelines vary, but the reimbursement process shouldn’t delay the response and restoration work,” he said.


Jennie Bierner is the business manager for the Sierra Soil and Water Conservation District. She said now that the district has its funding confirmed, repair work could start as soon as next week.

“It’s a bit more of a delay than we were hoping for,” she said. “But we finally got it all worked out.”

The race is now trying to fix as much as possible by the June 2024 deadline. The upcoming winter months will make repairs in the Gila National Forest difficult, Bierner said.

“We’re on a time crunch with the weather,” she said.

She said the state seems to understand that the June 2024 deadline could be tight and might let the district shift around project timelines if needed.

“Let’s say we get to March, and it looks like maybe we’ve got hang-ups or maybe we had a horrible catastrophic winter or something like that up in the forest, and we need to shift our priorities,” she said. “It sounds like they’re open to that.”

She said the district has already had solicitations for fence reconstruction and packing materials.


The $2 million could never go directly to individuals like ranchers who live in the Gila. They’ve struggled for over a year trying to figure out where relief can come from to fix massive damage sustained from the 2022 fire and floods.

But the local soil and water conservation district can do some work on private land, which is a workaround to the state’s anti-donation clause lawmakers thought of when trying to pull together the relief funds during the 2023 Legislature.

Bierner said the Sierra Soil and Water Conservation District went back and forth with the Department of Finance and Administration on what was allowed on private land. Most of the projects got approved, she said.

She said the district still has to be careful not to violate any state laws.

Laura Schneberger is looking forward to finally getting some state relief funds. The Gila area rancher said the Sierra conservation district is doing everything it can to help, and she expects the district to complete fencing repairs on her property.

“They’re all working really hard to get that money on the ground,” she said.

She reiterated Bierner’s concern that winter could create roadblocks to getting work done. It would’ve been best to get repairs done in the summer and fall, she said, but the state took so long to send the money down the line.

“I guess they have to jump through hoops,” she said. “It’s frustrating, but (work’s) kind of starting.”


Court reviews gun-carry restrictions under health order in New Mexico, as states explore options - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

An effort to suspend gun-carry rights in public parks, playgrounds and other recreational areas where children are often present went under the legal microscope Tuesday in a federal court in New Mexico, where the Democratic governor is testing the boundaries of her authority and constitutional law in response to violent crime in the state's largest metro area.

U.S. District Judge David Urias extended a preliminary hold on temporary gun restrictions by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham through Oct. 11 while he considers blocking the restrictions indefinitely under a preliminary injunction, allowing more time for written briefs and deliberations.

Gun rights advocates argued that even a new, scaled-back version of the public health measure would deprive Albuquerque-area residents of constitutional rights to carry a gun in public for self-defense under the 2nd Amendment.

Enforcement of the temporary restrictions on guns is on hold pending authorization from the court, said Holly Agajanian, chief counsel to the governor. That leaves little or no way currently to determine whether people still are carrying guns in areas flagged for restrictions under the health order.

Urias has declined a request to explicitly block new provisions that suspend gun-carry rights at playgrounds, noting in recent court filing that the provision "may very well be constitutional."

The standoff is one of many in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year expanding gun rights, as leaders in politically liberal-leaning states explore new avenues for restrictions.

The governor's chief counsel delivered an impassioned defense of the state's public health order Tuesday, calling it a "temporary cooling-off period" in response to several recent shootings that killed children and evidence of surging gun violence.

"What we are talking about is the mental health of our children who have to practice hiding from gunmen when they're at school," Agajanian said. "I think that they're entitled to go to a park, I think they're entitled to go to the playground and not have to worry about whether or not somebody standing at the other end of the playground holding a weapon is a good guy or a bad guy."

Advocates for gun rights have filed a barrage of challenges to the 30-day health order, which originally included broad restrictions on carrying guns in public.

In court on Tuesday, they said temporary restrictions on carrying guns in public parks could potentially bar admission to a shooting range located at a public park in Albuquerque and that restrictions on guns in public play areas for children are open to vague interpretations and would result in confusion. Agajanian clarified that the provision would apply to recreation facilities such as a public pools and community centers.

Much of the debate in court revolved around the definition of "sensitive" places, which are where guns can be restricted under recent Supreme Court interpretations of the 2nd Amendment.

Connecticut-based attorney Cameron Atkinson, who represents We the Patriots USA and Bernalillo County resident Dennis Smith, argued that "sensitive" places are locations where guns might disrupt a vital government function.

"It's polling places and government locations where people can come in and disrupt the government function," he said. "Well, you can't come in and disrupt the government function at a playground."

The governor plans to reissue her emergency orders on gun violence and drugs for at least an additional 30 days, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Maddy Hayden said Monday in an email. She said the urgent approach to violent crime is spurring arrests and reining in gunfire, even as the enforcement of gun restrictions is on hold. The orders include directives for monthly inspections of firearms dealers statewide, reports on gunshot victims at New Mexico hospitals and wastewater testing for illicit substances.

Urias ruled last month that gun restrictions in the governor's original order were likely to cause irreparable harm to people deprived of the right to carry a gun in public for self-defense.

The governor has tied the suspension of some gun rights to a statistical threshold for violent crime that applied only to Albuquerque and the surrounding area.

Attorney Marc Lowry, representing a former federal law enforcement officer in Albuquerque, said those thresholds based on FBI crime statistics and emergency room visits are vague and, for the average person, hard to interpret, creating uncertainty about where gun restrictions might apply in the future.

Agajanian argued on behalf of the governor that people who carry guns are capable of adjusting to temporary firearms restrictions.

"That is the sort of thing that we had to do every week during COVID, right?" she said. "I mean, people have to adapt. That's just how we have to do it."

State police would have authority under the governor's order to assess civil penalties and fines of up to $5,000 for infractions. The sheriff and Albuquerque's police chief had refused to enforce it.

The order has energized advocates for gun rights, including Republican lawmakers who have threatened impeachment proceedings against Lujan Grisham.

Some influential Democrats and civil rights leaders warn that the governor's move could do more harm than good to overall efforts to ease gun violence, and the Democratic state attorney general has urged her to reconsider.

Other states including California, Washington, Colorado and Maryland have passed gun laws this year that face legal challenges.

Last week California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed nearly two dozen gun control measures, including ones banning the carrying of firearms in most public places while doubling taxes on guns and ammunition sales.

Newsom has acknowledged some of the gun measures might not survive in the courts. Last month a federal judge struck down a state law banning guns with detachable magazines that carry more than 10 rounds.

AG charges Las Cruces officer with voluntary manslaughter - KUNM News

New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez is charging Las Cruces police officers for the shooting death of a man in August.

Torrez announced Tuesday he’s charging Brad Lunsford with voluntary manslaughter with a firearm enhancement in the death of Presley Eze.

Eze was at a gas station in Las Cruces on August 2nd when a station attendant called 911 to report he left the station with a beer he didn’t pay for, according to the AG’s officer.

Lunsford was the first officer on the scene and questioned Eze. He was unable to verify Eze’s identity and Lunsford and another officer forcibly removed Eze from his vehicle. Eze was unarmed and shirtless but resisted arrest. There was a scuffle and Eze ended up on top of one of the officers.

Eze placed his hand on the second officer’s taser and Lunsford shot Eze on the back and left side of his head. The AG says use of force experts reviewed footage and found Lunsford’s use of deadly force was not reasonable and other less lethal options should have been used.

NAACP Doña County President Bobbie Green applauded the AG’s decision.

Arizona to cancel leases allowing Saudi-owned farm access to state's groundwater - By Suman Naishadham Associated Press

Arizona governor Katie Hobbs said this week her administration is terminating state land leases that for years have given a Saudi-owned farm nearly unfettered access to pump groundwater in the dry southwestern state.

On Monday, Hobbs, a Democrat, said the state had canceled Fondomonte Arizona's lease in western Arizona's Butler Valley and would not renew three other leases up for renewal there next year.

An investigation by the governor's office found that the foreign-owned farm had violated some of its lease terms. Hobbs called it unacceptable that the farm "continued to pump unchecked amounts of groundwater out of our state while in clear default on their lease."

Fondomonte Arizona, a subsidiary of Saudi dairy giant Almarai Co., grows alfalfa in Arizona that feeds livestock in the water-stressed Gulf kingdom.

Through a spokesperson, Fondomonte said it would appeal the governor's decision to terminate its 640-acre (259-hectare) lease in Butler Valley. Altogether, Fondomonte farmed about 3,500 acres (1,416 hectares) in the rugged desert area west of Phoenix.

Fondomonte raised eyebrows when in 2014 it purchased nearly 10,000 acres (4,047 hectares) of land for $47.5 million about 20 miles (32 kilometers) away from Butler Valley in Vicksburg, Arizona. Since then, worsening drought in Arizona has brought renewed attention to the company's water use and the broader issues of foreign-owned farms and groundwater pumping.

The violations the governor's office detailed relate to the company's storage of hazardous materials, among other issues. On Monday, Hobbs' office said that Fondomonte was notified of the violations in 2016, but an investigation in August found the company had not fixed the problem seven years later. That gave Arizona's State Land Department grounds to terminate the lease.

The Arizona governor's office said the State Land Department decided not to renew three other leases the company had in Butler Valley due to the "excessive amounts of water being pumped from the land — free of charge."

The department manages land owned by Arizona, which in Fondomonte's case, had been leased to the company. Butler Valley's groundwater is especially important because of state law that in theory allows for it to be pumped elsewhere. That makes its water of interest to cities like Phoenix, also dealing with water supply-related stress and a fast-growing population.

In Arizona, cities such as Phoenix and Tucson have restrictions on how much groundwater they can pump under a 1980 state law aimed at protecting the state's aquifers. But in rural areas, little is required of water users to pump from underground aquifers besides registering wells with the state and using the water for activities, including farming, that are deemed a "beneficial use."

Fondomonte also farms in Southern California's Palo Verde Valley, an area that gets its water from the shrinking Colorado River. Those operations have attracted less scrutiny. Not all of Fondomonte's farms in Arizona are affected by the governor's decision. And it's not the only foreign company farming in the Southwest. The United Arab Emirates-owned Al Dahra ACX Global Inc. grows forage crops in Arizona and California, and is a major North American exporter of hay.

Almarai's holdings in the Southwest are just one example of the farmland the company and its subsidiaries operate outside Saudi Arabia. It farms tens of thousands of acres in Argentina, which has also faced severe drought conditions in recent years.

Foreign entities and individuals control roughly 3% of U.S. farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Canada is the largest holder — mainly of forestland.

Kris Mayes, Arizona's Democratic attorney general, praised the governor for cracking down on the foreign-owned farm.

In April, Mayes announced that the state had rescinded permits that would've allowed Fondomonte to drill new water wells after inconsistencies were found in its applications. On Monday, Mayes called the governor's actions a "step in the right direction," adding that the state should have acted sooner.

"The decision by the prior administration to allow foreign corporations to stick straws in the ground and pump unlimited amounts of groundwater to export alfalfa is scandalous," Mayes said.

'Miracle' water year in California: Rain, snow put state's reservoirs at 128% of historical average - By Adam Beam Associated Press

California ended its "miracle" water year on Saturday with enough rain and snow to fill the state's reservoirs to 128% of their historical average, making it among the wettest years in recorded state history.

That's a welcome boon to a state that has spent much of the past dozen years in a deep drought, forcing state leaders to grapple with how the state should share and manage its water in the future. A series of winter storms in early 2023 busted the state's most recent dry spell.

State officials measured 33.56 inches (85.2 centimeters) of precipitation through the end of September. California's "water year" begins annually on Oct. 1 so it can include all of the fall and winter months when California gets the bulk of its rain and snow. The state depends on those wet months to fill its reservoirs that supply water for drinking, farming and environmental uses throughout the state.

Those reservoirs dipped to dangerously low levels in in recent years because of an extreme drought. That prompted water restrictions on homes and businesses and curtailed deliveries to farmers. It also threatened already endangered species of fish, including salmon, that need cold water in the rivers to survive.

But the State Water Project — which includes 30 reservoirs and storage facilities and provides water to 27 million people — reported 27.4 million acre feet in its reservoirs as of Sept. 30. One acre foot of water is enough to supply two families of four for a year.

"This was as close to a miracle year as you can get," said Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources.

The reservoirs were helped by a series of nine strong storms that hit California over the winter. Those storms carried so much rain and snow they were known as "atmospheric rivers." They caused widespread flooding throughout the state and were blamed for multiple deaths.

The storms also dumped tons of snow on the mountains. The state snowpack on April 1 was 237% above its historical average. It's just the fourth time since 1950 the state's snowpack exceeded 200% of average, according to Michael Anderson, the state's climatologist.

All of that snow melted in the spring and summer, filling rushing rivers and reservoirs. Water levels at Lake Oroville rose 240 feet (73 meters) between Dec. 1, 2022, and the end of the snowmelt period. That's the largest increase in storage in one season since the reservoir opened in 1968, according to Ted Craddock, deputy director for the State Water Project.

State and federal officials will have to drain some of the reservoirs to make room for more water that's expected to come this year. The state's rainy season could be complicated by El Nino — the natural, temporary and occasional warming of part of the Pacific Ocean. El Nino affects weather patterns around the world. California typically gets more rain and snow during El Nino year. This year's El Nino has a 56% chance to be considered strong and a 25% chance to reach supersized levels, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The potential for more strong storms this year, particularly along the coast, "keeps me awake a little bit at night," said Gary Lippner, deputy director for flood management and dam safety with the California Department of Water Resources.

"We just do not have extensive flood systems on the coast of California," he said. "That's an area we're paying particularly attention to."

All of the rain and snow this year could have played a part in what has so far been a smaller wildfire season. Wildfires exploded in size during the drought in part because of the super dry conditions. So far this year, just over 476 square miles (1,234 square kilometers) have burned in California. That's well below the five year average of 2,031 square miles (5,260 square kilometers), according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.