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WED: GOP commission refuses to certify New Mexico primary vote, Lujan Grisham concerned with potential migrant influx, + More

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FILE - Otero County, New Mexico Commissioner Couy Griffin stands outside the federal court after receiving a verdict in his trial, March 22, 2022 in Washington. A federal judge has convicted Griffin of illegally entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds, but acquitted him of engaging in disorderly conduct during the riot that disrupted Congress from certifying Joe Biden's presidential election victory. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe, File)

County's refusal to certify the vote hints at election chaos - By Christina A. Cassidy Associated Press

The conspiracy theories about Dominion voting machines that erupted during the 2020 presidential contest flared this week in a remote New Mexico county in what could be just a preview of the kind of chaos election experts fear is coming in the fall midterms and in 2024.

The governing commission in Otero County refused to certify the local results of the state's June 7 primary because of the equipment, in what was seen as another instance of how the falsehoods spread by former President Donald Trump and his allies have infected elections and threaten the democratic process.

"We are in scary territory," said Jennifer Morrell, a former election official in Colorado and Utah who now advises federal, state and local officials. "If this can happen here, where next? It's like a cancer, a virus. It's metastasizing and growing."

There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting equipment in the 2020 election, which Trump lost to Joe Biden. But that hasn't stopped the false claims, particularly those about Dominion machines.

"I have huge concerns with these voting machines," Otero County Commissioner Vickie Marquardt said Monday as she and her two fellow commissioners — all Republicans — voted unanimously. "When I certify stuff that I don't know is right, I feel like I'm being dishonest because in my heart I don't know if it is right."

The commissioners in the conservative, pro-Trump county could point to no actual problems with the Dominion equipment.

New Mexico's secretary of state asked the state Supreme Court to step in and order the county to certify the votes, and the high court did so on Wednesday. That would ensure that the nearly 7,400 ballots that were cast in Otero County are recorded as legal votes. The deadline for county certification is Friday.

In the weeks and months following the election, various Trump allies claimed that Dominion voting systems had somehow been manipulated as part of an elaborate scheme to steal the election.

On Monday, the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol presented testimony that Trump was told repeatedly that his claims of a stolen election and rigged voting systems were false and dangerous. That included pushback from his inner circle to the claims about Dominion voting systems, which are used by jurisdictions in 27 states.

Former Attorney General William Barr, in a videotaped interview with House investigators, said he spoke with Trump about the "idiotic claims" surrounding Dominion.

Barr said he found them to be "among the most disturbing allegations" because they were "made in such a sensational way that they obviously were influencing a lot of people." He added that the claims were doing a "grave disservice to the country."

Trump ignored that, and his allies persisted in attacking Dominion. According to the House panel, the day after Barr spoke with Trump, the president released a video in which he claimed without proof that "with the turn of a dial or the change of a chip, you can press a button for Trump and the vote goes to Biden."

Dominion has filed defamation lawsuits against various Trump associates and conservative media organizations, including Fox News.

The company said in a statement Wednesday that the action by the Otero County commissioners was "yet another example of how lies about Dominion have damaged our company and diminished the public's faith in elections."

Otero County, with a population of about 67,000, went for Trump by nearly 62% in 2020. One of the commissioners is Cowboys for Trump co-founder Couy Griffin, who was convicted of entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds — though not the building — during the Jan. 6 uprising.

New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said the commissioners were violating the law and their oaths of office in refusing to certify the vote. She said that there is a process to deal with any problems that arise with an election but that the commissioners did not specify any.

"Unfortunately, when one county decides to act completely outside the law, it gives credence to others who may want to do the same thing," she said. "We have the potential to see this spread and have a domino effect."

Numerous procedures are in place, including pre- and post-testing of voting equipment and post-election audits that ensure machines are working properly. In New Mexico, voters mark their paper ballots by hand. The ballots are then fed into a scanner to tally the results.

Vulnerabilities do exist, as with any technology, but election officials work to identify and fix them. A recent advisory issued by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency highlighted certain vulnerabilities discovered in Dominion voting systems and provided recommendations to election officials.

But those pushing false claims about voting systems want more than just paper ballots cast by hand -- they also want ballots to be counted entirely by hand. Experts say this is unreliable, time-consuming, labor-intensive and entirely unnecessary given the various safeguards.

Among the most prominent advocates for this is Jim Marchant, a former state lawmaker who on Tuesday was selected as the Republican nominee for secretary of state in Nevada. Marchant is among a group of "America First" candidates seeking to oversee elections while denying the outcome of the last one.

Election experts say the Otero County case is a warning of what could happen if candidates who repeat electoral falsehoods and misinformation gain responsibility for overseeing voting.

"This is just a taste of what we could see in the future, as election deniers are running for positions with control over elections all over the country," said David Becker, a former U.S. Justice Department attorney who leads the Center for Election Innovation and Research.

New Mexico governor concerned with potential migrant influx - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico's Democratic governor is asking that the Biden administration delay planned or expanded efforts to transport migrants to her state if pandemic-related restrictions on asylum seekers are lifted.

The federal government has predicted a threefold increase in border crossings if that happens, and first-term Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Tuesday an influx of migrants would dramatically affect the border state's capacity to provide ongoing humanitarian assistance to thousands of New Mexico residents displaced by historic wildfires this spring.

She outlined her concerns in a letter sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejando Mayorkas.

The governor is among Democrats who would be forced to play defense in an already difficult midterm election year if there were an increase in illegal border crossings.

Lujan Grisham told Mayorkas that border issues and flaws in the immigration system need to be addressed and that public safety and health are paramount. She went on to say that she doesn't believe the department can adequately address the concerns if existing limitations on migrant entry are lifted.

"New Mexico (and other border states) will bear the brunt of adverse economic and social impacts that are likely to arise from the influx of migrants without additional planning on the part of the federal government," Lujan Grisham wrote. "I cannot allow this."

The governor recently visited Washington to talk with top officials about wildfire recovery as the largest blaze burning in the U.S. chars more tinder dry forest in northern New Mexico.

The massive fire was the result of planned burns by the federal government to clear out vegetation and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. With the flames escaping containment, thousands of residents were forced to flee and rural communities now face threats of post-fire flooding and other problems.

Lujan Grisham said New Mexico's resources already have been taxed by the wildfire emergencies and it cannot "shoulder additional burdens falling squarely within the federal government's purview."

A federal judge last month blocked the Biden administration's plan to lift the migrant restrictions, ordering that they stay in place while a lawsuit led by Arizona and Louisiana — and now joined by 22 other states — plays out in court.

Migrants have been expelled more than 1.9 million times since March 2020 under Title 42, a public health provision that denies them a chance to request asylum under U.S. law and international treaty on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Aside from ruling that the Biden administration failed to follow administrative procedures requiring public notice and time to gather public comment, the judge cited predictions that ending the restrictions would likely increase border crossings to as many as 18,000 daily. That, the judge noted, would result in more migrants being processed in congregate settings where contagious disease can be spread.

The New Mexico governor's office did not say how many migrants the state could expect if restrictions were lifted.

Lujan Grisham had been a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump's immigration policies, and Republicans in New Mexico repeatedly have criticized her for what they consider a lax stance when it comes to border security.

The issue is expected to be part of the debate ahead of the November election, when Lujan Grisham will face GOP challenger Mark Ronchetti.

Rain is likely on the way as New Mexico’s two largest wildfires spread in dry conditions By Nash Jones, KUNM News

Over 1,000 firefighters Wednesday were battling the Black Fire in the Gila National Forest in hot, dry and windy conditions.

The fire, which sparked last month, has grown rapidly to over 496 square miles. That’s now just 27 square miles smaller than the Calf Canyon/Hermit Peak Fire, the state’s largest.

The Black fire is less than half contained, but fire officials say stormy weather is expected to reach the area later this week, increasing moisture.

Meanwhile, in northeastern New Mexico, nearly 2,200 firefighters are working to suppress the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire amid similar conditions, with strong winds and near-record highs. Fire officials say the weather conditions have increased the fire’s activity to northeast into the wilderness, along with the visibility of the smoke.

The National Weather services has forecasted rain to begin Thursday, increasing into the weekend and lasting into next week.

GOP commission refuses to certify New Mexico primary vote - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's secretary of state on Tuesday asked the state Supreme Court to order the Republican-led commission of rural Otero County to certify primary election results after it refused to do so over distrust of Dominion vote-tallying machines.

Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Olive's request came a day after the three-member Otero County commission, in its role as a county canvassing board, voted unanimously against certifying the results of the June 7 primary without raising specific concerns about discrepancies.

The commission's members include Cowboys for Trump co-founder Couy Griffin, who ascribes to unsubstantiated claims that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Griffin was convicted of illegally entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds — though not the building — amid the riots on Jan. 6, 2021, and is scheduled for sentencing later this month. He acknowledged that the standoff over this primary could delay the outcome of local election races.

"I have huge concerns with these voting machines," Otero County Commissioner Vickie Marquardt said Monday. "When I certify stuff that I don't know is right, I feel like I'm being dishonest because in my heart I don't know if it is right."

The commission's vote is the latest example of how conspiracy theories and misinformation are affecting the integrity of local elections across the U.S. Trump has continued to describe the 2020 election as "rigged" or "stolen," despite a coalition of top government and industry officials calling it the "most secure in American history."

Dominion's systems also have been unjustifiably attacked since the 2020 election by people who embraced the false belief that the election was stolen from Trump. The company has filed defamation lawsuits in response to incorrect and outrageous claims made by high-profile Trump allies.

New Mexico's Dominion machines have been disparaged repeatedly by David and Erin Clements of Las Cruces in their review of the 2020 election in Otero County and voter registration rolls at the request of the commission. The Clements are traveling advocates for "forensic" reviews of the 2020 election and offer their services as election experts and auditors to local governments. Election officials including County Clerk Robyn Holmes say the Clements are not certified auditors nor experts in election protocols.

The couple has highlighted problems during sporadic, hourslong presentations to the commission this year. Local election officials dispute many of the findings as mistaken or unfounded.

County canvassing boards have until June 17 to certify election results, prior to state certification and preparation of general election ballots.

Under state law, county canvass boards can call on a voting precinct board to address specific discrepancies, but no discrepancies were identified on Monday by the Otero commission.

"The post-election canvassing process is a key component of how we maintain our high levels of election integrity in New Mexico and the Otero County Commission is flaunting that process by appeasing unfounded conspiracy theories and potentially nullifying the votes of every Otero County voter who participated in the primary," Toulouse Oliver said in a statement. She accused the commission of willful violations of the state election code.

New Mexico uses paper ballots that can be double-checked later in all elections, and also relies on tabulation machines to rapidly tally votes while minimizing human error. Election results also are audited by random samplings to verify levels of accuracy in the vote count.

The Otero County commission voted last week to recount ballots from the statewide primary election by hand, remove state-mandated ballot drop boxes that facilitate absentee voting and discontinue the use of Dominion vote tabulation machines in the general election.

On Monday, Holmes said those instructions from the county commissions conflict with state and federal election law, and that she would only recount the election by hand under a court order.

"The election law does not allow me to hand tally these ballots or to even form a board to do it. I just can't," said Holmes, a Republican. "And I'm going to follow the law."

Holmes noted that the state-owned vote tabulation machines from Dominion are tested by Otero County officials in public view and that the machines also are independently certified in advance. Griffin said he and fellow commissioners don't see the process as trustworthy.

"That's a source that we don't have any control or influence over," he said.

Mario Jimenez of the progressive watchdog group Common Cause New Mexico said the public can view testing of vote-tallying machines prior to elections in every county, and that certification notices are posted on every machine where voters can see them.

"They have no basis — other than 'we just don't trust the machine' — for not certifying the election," Jimenez said of the Otero County commissioners.

Though Trump won nearly 62% of the vote in Otero County in 2020, county commissioners have said they are not satisfied with results of the state's audit of the vote count nor assurances by their Republican county clerk that elections this year will be accurate.

County commissioners could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

Marquardt, the commissioner, laughed Monday at the suggestion that a court might intervene in the election dispute.

"And so then what? They're going to send us to the pokey?" she said.

30% of New Mexicans seeking FEMA help got denial letters, but they can still get aid – By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has so far deemed 740 applicants ineligible for federal aid for damages caused by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, though an official stressed yesterday that the door is still wide open for those people to get FEMA help.

Source New Mexico’s Patrick Lohmann reports that spokesperson Angela Byrd provided new numbers about applications from those affected by the state’s biggest wildfire, which has more than 325,000 acres and caused thousands to flee their homes.

The denial letters from FEMA sparked criticism from nearby residents and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who say they create a perception of blanket rejections. The letters are automated but say someone has been denied in bold letters across the top.

The governor told Source that the letter should instead read something like: "We’ve put you in this system. We’re gonna call and send out a benefits specialist.”

President Joe Biden said FEMA representatives would be sure to make a follow-up phone call to every person who was initially deemed ineligible for aid.

Byrd did not have information available about how many appeals have been filed. Applicants who receive initial denials have 60 days to file an appeal.

Citing dangerous conditions, public defenders pause visits with clients in New Mexico’s largest jail – By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

The state’s chief public defender says the situation inside the state’s largest jail has become so unsafe that New Mexico’s public defenders have temporarily stopped going into the facility.

The warden of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County declared a state of emergency earlier this month that requires guards to report for work and drops limits on overtime pay, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

Jail officials told the newspaper they declared the emergency because there are too few guards to supervise the roughly 13-hundred people locked inside.

Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur said that the Law Offices of the Public Defender and other defense attorneys have had limited in-person visitations to the jail over the last several months. He says they are now suspending that visitation altogether.

Baur said he has a responsibility for the safety of his employees who walk into a jail.

He called the decision “painful,” adding that he hopes the measure is short lived.

For however long client visits are suspended, he said, their clients will not have as good of legal representation as they need.

Activity on the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire Grows amid heavy winds - By Nash Jones, KUNM News

Fire officials announced Tuesday that heavy wind and hot, arid conditions have increased activity on the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, the largest in state history.

In an update posted to Facebook, officials said the fire is expanding northwest, as well as northeast from about the middle of the eastern perimeter of the fire, around Iron Gate Campground.

The statement said they expect any unburned areas within the perimeter to be consumed throughout the rest of the day.

Air crews have been grounded with a Red Flag Warning due to high, erratic winds in effect for the area until 8 pm Tuesday night.

While officials warned that residents may notice a larger plume of smoke over the fire area, they assured nearby communities that they are not at higher risk from this activity and roads remain open.

Today, an air quality alert from plumes of smoke across the state will loom over areas near southern New Mexico’s city of Socorro and in northern areas stretching from Los Alamos past Angel Fire.

As of Wednesday morning, the blaze had burned over 325,000 acres and is 70% contained.

Northern Arizona watches winds as Western wildfires blaze - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Calmer winds and cooler temperatures Tuesday allowed firefighters across the U.S. West to get a better handle on blazes that have forced hundreds of people from their homes.

As red flag warnings expired and winds died down in northern Arizona, firefighters took advantage of the weather changes to attack a 31-square-mile blaze by air and at the fire's edges.

"They're optimistic to make some headway," fire information officer Cathie Pauls said.

The forecast for later this week called for a chance of showers, which could dampen the blaze but might bring the chance of new fires from lightning strikes.

Meanwhile, authorities downgraded evacuations for the larger of two wildfires burning on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona.

That fire made a run into a wilderness area and reached a lava dome to the northeast, away from most neighborhoods. One home and a secondary structure had burned, the Coconino County Sheriff's Office said. About 350 homes remained evacuated Tuesday.

Another 280 homes were evacuated because of a smaller wildfire that burned about 6 square miles in a more remote area.

Sandra Morales planned to return home Wednesday, a day after evacuations for her neighborhood were lifted.

Still, she worried about the smoke, potential wind shifts and the risk of flooding later in the fire area.

"Next thing you know, we have to be worried about the monsoons and all that," she said. "That debris, if it gets severe, it's going to come down the mountain."

Climate change and an enduring drought have fanned the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fires. Multiple states had early starts to the wildfire season this spring.

The number of square miles burned so far this year is more than double the 10-year national average, and states like New Mexico have already set records with devastating blazes that destroyed hundreds of homes while causing environmental damage that is expected to affect water supplies.

Nationally, more than 6,200 wildland firefighters were battling nearly three dozen uncontained fires that had charred over 1,780 square miles, much of it in the U.S. Southwest, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In southwest Alaska, favorable winds shifted the progression of a fire that's burned 202 square miles of dry grass and brush, fire managers said Tuesday. No one had been evacuated, and no structures were damaged or lost.

In California, firefighters reported significant progress against a wildfire near the San Gabriel Mountains community of Wrightwood, but evacuation orders and warnings remained in place. The blaze has scorched about 1.5 square miles since erupting over the weekend and was 27% contained.

In Northern California's Tehama County, firefighters gained 30% containment of a fire that destroyed 10 buildings, damaged four others and threatened about 160 structures, fire officials said.

In a wildfire-related situation, a 50-mile stretch of State Route 70 in Northern California remained closed indefinitely after mud, boulders and dead trees inundated lanes during flash floods along a burn scar.

Company tests high-altitude airship over New Mexico desert - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A technology company that wants to bring broadband to more remote areas and monitor methane and other emissions from the oil and gas industry launched one of its airships from the New Mexico desert on Tuesday as part of a key test on the way to commercial operations.

Sceye Inc. is developing a high-altitude platform station that company officials hope will provide an option other than satellites and airplanes for boosting internet connectivity and collecting data on everything from industrial pollution to wildfire threats.

It took a couple of hours for the unmanned helium-filled station to reach the stratosphere. It will maintain its position there for 24 hours, a milestone that will bring Sceye closer to commercial operations over the next 18 to 24 months.

Founder and CEO Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsenand said his team will aim for more longevity with subsequent flights from their home base in Roswell.

"Every flight is a big deal but every flight also is just another step in a process of iterative learning," he said during a virtual interview from Sceye's hangar where workers were busy prepping the massive airship for the flight.

Vestergaard Frandsenand said it takes about eight months to build a station, which consists of a sleek reflective fabric designed to operate in the stratosphere at 65,000 feet above the Earth's surface.

NASA several years ago proposed a challenge that called for designs that could fly higher and longer than existing airships, with scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California saying observations at that altitude could provide greater clarity. At the time, no airship could maintain an altitude in the stratosphere for more than eight hours.

Capable of lifting heavy payloads, Sceye's airship runs on solar panels and a bank of lithium-sulphur batteries.

"Whether we achieve our objective with this flight or achieve something that's short of the objective, we're going to learn a lot," he said.

The New Mexico Economic Development Department pledged up to $5 million in funding when Sceye announced it would locate in the state. The company has operations in Roswell and Moriarty, a small community near Albuquerque.

Sceye partnered last year with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and New Mexico regulators to study air pollution and climate change over the coming years.

The state also has been studying accelerated formats for expanding high-speed internet, and state officials have said Sceye could play a role in that effort through a separate multimillion-dollar contract.