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FRI: False election claims overwhelm local efforts to push back, + More

The Torrance County Board of Commissioners gathers in Estancia, N.M., Sept. 14 , 2022. Republican commissioners in the rural New Mexico county have tried everything they can think of to persuade voters that their elections are secure, and none of it seems to be working. They agreed to hand count ballots from the primary election, allowed the public to observe security testing of ballot machines and tasked their county manager with making sure those efforts ran smoothly. Still, many voters in Torrance County don’t trust voting machines or election results. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
Morgan Lee
The Torrance County Board of Commissioners gathers in Estancia, N.M., Sept. 14 , 2022. Republican commissioners in the rural New Mexico county have tried everything they can think of to persuade voters that their elections are secure, and none of it seems to be working. They agreed to hand count ballots from the primary election, allowed the public to observe security testing of ballot machines and tasked their county manager with making sure those efforts ran smoothly. Still, many voters in Torrance County don’t trust voting machines or election results. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

False election claims overwhelm local efforts to push back - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Republican county commissioners in this swath of ranching country in New Mexico's high desert have tried everything they can think of to persuade voters their elections are secure.

They approved hand-counting of ballots from the primary election in their rural county, encouraged the public to observe security testing of ballot machines and tasked their county manager with overseeing those efforts to make sure they ran smoothly. None of that seems enough.

Here and elsewhere, Republicans as well as Democrats are paying a price for former President Donald Trump's relentless complaints and false claims about the 2020 election he lost.

Many Torrance County voters still don't trust voting machines or election tallies, a conspiracy-fueled lack of faith that persists in rural areas across the U.S. Just weeks before consequential midterm elections, such widespread skepticism suggests that no matter the outcome, many Americans may not accept the results.

"Confidence that that vote is accurately counted and tabulated is not there," said Ryan Schwebach, a grain farmer who is chairman of the three-member, all-Republican Torrance County Board of County Commissioners.

After a backlash this summer over the county's certification of its primary results, Schwebach surveyed county residents who don't attend public meetings. They, too, told him they weren't sure they could trust election results.

"It's the overall system that comes into question," he said. "So how do you challenge that, how do you get your answers?"

The belief that voting machines are being manipulated to sway the outcome of races is being promoted by Trump and his allies, many of whom have been spreading conspiracy theories throughout the country for nearly two years.

Their messages have penetrated deeply into the Republican Party, despite no evidence of manipulation or widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election. That finding has been supported by multiple reviews in battleground states, by judges who have rejected dozens of court cases, by Trump's own Department of Justice and top officials in his administration.

The distrust erupted in Torrance County earlier this year, as commissioners were set to certify the results from the state's June 7 primary. Torrance was among a handful of rural New Mexico counties that considered delaying certification as crowds gave voice to conspiracy theories surrounding voting equipment.

Angry residents denounced the results and the commissioners' certification at a meeting -- a vote taken after the county elections clerk reported that the local election was secure and accurate. Those in the audience hurled insults at the commissioners, calling them "cowards," "traitors" and "rubber stamp puppets."

The commissioners responded to the vitriol by taking several unprecedented steps in an attempt to restore trust in voting and ballot counting.

They ordered an independent recount of primary election results by hand and assigned the county manager to recruit veteran poll workers and volunteers for two days of eye-straining efforts to sort and tally ballot images, with additional recounts. They also had her oversee testing and certification of the county's vote tabulators.

"I'm kind of pioneering this, and I'm sure I'm not going to be perfect in it, but I can tell you that I'm trying," said Janice Barela, the county manager overseeing the recount. "How do you know if it's the hand tally that's right? How do you know if it's a tabulator that's right? … What I'd like to see in all of this is the election process work."

It's not clear whether her efforts will satisfy local doubts about the accuracy of elections — or add to them.

Bill Mendenhall, a registered Republican nearing retirement age, said anger still smolders in the community over the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Trump won two-thirds of the vote in Torrance County.

"I don't think it burns that hot, but it does burn," said Mendenhall, a correctional officer at the maximum-security Penitentiary of New Mexico. He was tending to a small herd of goats beneath an old windmill on his 18-acre ranch. "Of the people I work with, 90% of them is angry. A lot of people think that Trump was cheated."

Brady Ness, a 37-year-old manager of a car dealership who grew up on a ranch in Estancia, said he does not trust Dominion Voting Systems machines that are used to tally paper ballots across New Mexico. The machines are a frequent target of conspiracy theories, and Ness hopes to see a transition to hand counting in future elections, though current state law mandates machine tallies.

"Even if they're Democrats or people I don't like or get along with, I would trust them over machines," Ness said.

He recently left the Republican Party amid profound frustration with the state and federal governments, which he says are not serving the needs of the people.

"I wouldn't be shocked if we didn't have a general election," he said. "I think things in this country are falling apart very quickly."

At the same time, Bill Peifer, a local treasurer for the Democratic Party, warns that not everyone who questions the elections may have the same motive.

"Some of the people casting doubt I think honestly don't trust the machines," he said. "And there are others who just want to make a mess."

The dour outlook in the county of 15,000 has been propelled by the same forces at work in many other states. In New Mexico, doubts about the 2020 election were fueled by a lawsuit from Trump's campaign and a fake set of electors willing to certify him.

More recently, an assortment of local and out-of-state Trump allies have held forums throughout the state promoting conspiracy theories, including former White House strategist Steve Bannon, MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell and the Republican nominee for secretary of state, Audrey Trujillo.

At the forefront is David Clements, a New Mexico-based former prosecutor and former college professor. At conventions, church gatherings and local forums, he advocates for eliminating electronic election equipment and exonerating many of the defendants charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

At a presentation last month to about 60 people at a public library in Albuquerque, Clements described voting equipment in New Mexico as intentionally vulnerable to fraud and painted many county officials as complicit.

"We're never going to stop the bleeding unless we get rid of these machines," he said. "It's a foundational issue."

Deep-seated distrust in elections has inspired independent challengers in the November general elections for the seats held by Schwebach and Commissioner Kevin McCall. Both of their opponents have stated that Joe Biden was not legitimately elected president.

McCall is seeking re-election while working long hours at his pumpkin farm, which features a haunted house for Halloween and employs more than 400 seasonal workers.

"We care," he said in a recent interview. "We put Janice on that to be the one sole job, to evaluate and provide trust in the election."

He expressed exasperation that the efforts do not seem to have paid off so far.

"If they really want to replace me, replace me," he said. "I'm not doing this for the money."

The county released results on Thursday from its hand count of primary ballots, showing discrepancies between those tallies and the machine count in June, though not enough to change individual races.

Experts say machine tabulators have been shown to be more accurate than hand counts, which are susceptible to human error. Nevertheless, the results were greeted as vindication by doubters.

"While the numbers are new information, the fact that machines are untrustworthy is not new," declared Jennette Hunt of Estancia.

Early voting sites to expand Saturday across New Mexico - Source New Mexico, Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News 

Early voting at county clerks offices has been underway since last week, and has already garnered a strong turnout. Tomorrow, early voting locations expand considerably across the state.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the turnout is already up over 30% from this time in 2018m with more than 54,000 ballots cast as of this morning.

Bernalillo County - the state’s largest - will go from having a single in-person polling location to offering 20 tomorrow morning until Saturday, Nov. 5.

Source New Mexico’s Megan Gleason reports polls will open again on Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 8th.

Not all counties will open additional sites tomorrow. Spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office, Alex Curtas, says it’s at the discretion of the counties, depending on staffing and voter needs.

Voters can call their county offices to check on polling locations and hours, which vary. Most will be open Monday through Saturday through the early voting period.

New Mexicans can also vote with an absentee ballot. The last day to request one is Thursday, Nov. 3rd. It can be submitted by mail, ballot drop box, or in-person at a polling location.

People not yet registered to vote can do so in-person at any polling location in their own county and cast a ballot during the same visit.

At least 40 acequias still damaged after Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, association says - Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

Dozens of historic irrigation channels in the burn scar of the state’s biggest wildfire remain damaged, the New Mexico Acequia Association told a legislative panel on Thursday.

Of 68 acequias that the association has identified in and around the 340,000-acre burn scar, at least 41 are damaged. Another 11 are likely damaged. The rest are not known or confirmed to be unharmed. That’s according to the association’s months-long survey of damage in the burn scar, compiled for review by the New Mexico’s Interim Land Grant Committee on Thursday in Chilili, N.M.

Acequias are essential for agriculture in the areas affected by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, and they must be repaired quickly to avoid another year of lost livelihood for farmers and ranchers in the area. There are at least 2,000 farms in San Miguel and Mora Counties, the counties hit hardest by the fire.

So far, acequias and the association advocating for them have had challenges finding funding to repair them. For one, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has only recently allowed acequias to apply for funding typically reserved for public entities. Thirty-four acequias have applied, though it requires “extensive technical assistance” from the shorthanded association to complete the applications.

And the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has denied funding requests. Acequias often need backhoes and hand crews to dig out silt and debris carried there by intense post-fire flooding.

The ditches are getting some help from the state’s Department of Transportation, association representative David Garcia told lawmakers, and that agency is getting reimbursed for any costs by FEMA. Hand crews from Americorps are also chipping in.

Overall, the association is asking for lawmakers to create a revolving contingency fund to help acequias with costs. The small acequias are extremely cash-strapped. They don’t generate revenue, and the small annual fees paid by parciantes are quickly spent.

State Sen. Leo Jaramillo (D-Española) chairs the committee. He told Source New Mexico after the meeting that such a fund is necessary, because acequias simply don’t have cash reserves needed to pay for emergencies, even if they’ll be reimbursed later, or if they’re paying 10% or 25% for a tab otherwise picked up by the federal government.

“They just don’t have the cash on hand,” he said.

It’s likely that the $2.5 billion compensation fund recently passed by Congress will include some funding for acequias, as well, but it will still be months before that money begins to reach the ground, and FEMA is still writing rules about how that will work.

US agency to cover matching costs following New Mexico fire - Associated Press

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will waive cost-sharing requirements for New Mexico farmers and ranchers affected by the largest wildfire in the state's recorded history.

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján on Thursday announced that the agency will cover cost sharing for emergency forest restoration, conservation and other environmental improvement programs.

The move follows the approval of a massive federal spending bill that included $2.5 billion in relief for those affected by the fire and post-fire flooding. That bill included a provision to waive cost sharing for all programs administered by the USDA.

The wildfire was sparked by two government planned burns earlier this year. It ripped through hundreds of square miles of forest and grazing lands, destroying homes and the livelihoods of many of the rural residents.

Through no fault of their own, Luján said residents lost large swaths of cherished lands and will have to grapple with the effects for years.

"Our farmers and ranchers, business owners and families deserve relief to recover," he said in a statement.

Federal government has given $800 million to keep indebted farmers afloat - Jared Strong, Iowa Capital Dispatch

More than 13,000 farmers have benefited from nearly $800 million in federal debt relief, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Tuesday.

The assistance came from a new federal initiative to erase farmers’ loan delinquencies to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and private lenders, or to resolve their remaining debts after foreclosure.

Going forward, the USDA is expected to give hundreds of millions of dollars of relief to farmers who are facing bankruptcy or foreclosure and to those who are at risk of missing payments on their loans.

“The star of the show here is the farmer,” Vilsack told reporters.

The USDA’s Farm Service Agency gives direct loans to farmers and guarantees loans from banks, credit unions and others to farmers for up to 95% of their value.

The government’s farm loan obligations for its 2022 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, totaled about $5.8 billion dollars, according to USDA records. States with the highest obligations included Iowa at about $484 million, Arkansas at $424 million, Oklahoma at $366 million, and Nebraska at $341 million.

Of those with delinquent direct loans, the average farmer who has failed to make regular payments for at least two months received about $52,000 under a “distressed borrowers” initiative, which is funded with more than $3 billion by the Inflation Reduction Act. That eliminated their delinquencies.

For those with government-backed loans from private entities, the average benefit was about $172,000.

The total number of farmers in the two categories was about 11,000.

For those with direct loans who went bankrupt and still owed money — about 2,100 borrowers — the average benefit was about $101,000. Vilsack said those bankruptcies happened at least a year ago but did not say how long ago they might have occurred.

States with farmers who received among the most relief included Oklahoma and Texas, Vilsack said, whereas farmers in the northeastern states of Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island received among the least. Those northeastern states had a combined total of federal farm loan obligations of just $11 million during the 2022 fiscal year, USDA records show.

New Mexico farmers owe a combined total of $51,761,000 in accumulated debt to farm loan programs, according to the USDA.

“Virtually every state in the country has a borrower or several borrowers or groups of borrowers that are impacted by this,” he said. “I think you’re probably talking about some very, very small operators, and you’re probably talking about a few that would be considered to be mid- or large-sized operators. So it’s across the board.”

The debt relief initiative is the subject of a new lawsuit by non-white farmers who claim that the government improperly reneged on its plans to forgive loan debts of “socially disadvantaged” farmers, which was part of the American Rescue Plan of 2021. That initial version of the plan was challenged by lawsuits that claimed it was discriminatory.

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 amended the debt relief program to eliminate its prescribed goal to help Asian, Black, Hispanic and Native American farmers. Vilsack described the farmers who have been aided by the amended initiative as those who “couldn’t get credit anywhere else.”

The USDA suspended its foreclosures of direct loans in January 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, which was especially tough on livestock producers. Meatpacker closures because of the virus abruptly choked demand for the animals and led, in some cases, to mass euthanasia. The supply costs for farmers has also soared, notably for fertilizers.

Rio Grande managers eye federal cash for western drought - Suman Naishadham Associated Press

With several billion dollars in federal money secured for drought-stricken western states, managers and officials on the Rio Grande are hopeful some will reach their communities and bring attention to the challenges facing one of North America's longest rivers.

Stretches of the river near Albuquerque, New Mexico went dry for the first time in 40 years in August, destroying critical habitat for endangered fish. South Texas cities including McAllen, Brownsville and Mission, whose only water source is the river, ratcheted up water restrictions on businesses and a collective 1 million people. Reservoirs that are key to those residents, but not household names, like Amistad and the Falcon Lakes, fell to all-time lows. Farmers in the Rio Grande Valley braced for losses when drought caused interruptions to deliveries from canals that normally bring them water.

With $4 billion in the Biden administration's climate measure to address drought, some officials argue cities and farms in the Rio Grande basin have been overlooked while facing just as many problems as others in the West. The money from the federal spending package has not yet been fully allocated, but priority will be given to states served by the 1,450-mile (2,334-kilometer) powerhouse of the West, the Colorado River, and to other drought-afflicted basins. Officials in New Mexico and Texas want the Rio Grande to be included.

A main way the money will be spent in the Colorado River basin is to pay farmers to leave fields unplanted and free up the water that would otherwise be used. Southwestern cities and Native American tribes, who have their own rights to water, could also be paid to use less of their supply.

Over the years, Rio Grande communities have received federal grant funding and loans for infrastructure repairs and conservation, but officials say the current moment is unique because the Interior Department and other federal agencies are flush with cash from spending packages passed under the Biden administration.

New Mexico has received "bits and pieces of things," said Mike Hamman, the state water engineer. "But nothing like a major drought appropriation strictly from the federal government, to date."

In Texas, Maria Elena-Giner helps oversee treaties that govern how the U.S. and Mexico share the Rio Grande and Colorado River as the U.S. representative to the International Boundary and Water Commission.

Key differences between the two rivers make managing South Texas' water supply challenging, Giner said. In South Texas, 70% of water from the Rio Grande comes from tributaries located in Mexico. The southern neighbor is to deliver water to the U.S. in five-year cycles, or send smaller increments yearly. But Mexico's water deliveries have grown increasingly unpredictable as drought cuts into both countries' water supply.

Additional money could be put toward new water storage projects and improvements to existing dams, canals, and reservoirs in both countries, Giner said. "The big challenge is really some predictability ... on an annual basis."

The situation on the Rio Grande is unlike the Colorado River, where Mexico is last in line for water. The northwestern Mexican states of Baja California and Sonora use Colorado River water while Chihuahua, to the east, relies on the Rio Grande.

Giner added that whereas the Colorado has the powerful Bureau of Reclamation as a manager, the Rio Grande has the International Boundary and Water Commission, a little-known diplomatic agency headquartered in El Paso, with nowhere near the same manpower to handle transboundary water issues.

"We are the Bureau of Reclamation on the Rio Grande," she said, pointing to the commission's $55 million annual budget for the entire U.S-Mexico border.

But Democratic U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico said the problems of the three-state Rio Grande basin go beyond money. She wants to reform how the river is managed, and introduced legislation in Congress last summer to bring more coordination between the basin states, arguing that policies should be updated to match current climate conditions in the Southwest.

Stansbury said reservoirs on the Rio Grande could be managed differently to allow for better water storage, which would help communities in times of drought. Currently, reservoirs in New Mexico have specific uses for water delivery, flood control or storage, but are rarely used for more than one purpose. And adding more coordination among states would allow them to make better use of funding that's available, she said.

"On the Rio Grande, there's not a set of common goals because that management framework doesn't exist for the entire basin," Stansbury said. Her bill is part of a larger drought and wildfire package that the Senate will likely vote on after the midterm elections.

The Colorado River is on a scale unmatched by any other North American river, serving 40 million people across seven states, 29 tribes and Mexico. The Rio Grande provides water to more than 6 million people in southern Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico and irrigates thousands of square miles of farmland.

Jason Casuga, chief engineer for New Mexico's Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, said the Rio Grande's smaller scale should make conservation easier, particularly as drought-affected states are eligible for more funding.

"The Colorado is just orders and orders of magnitude different on the scale of water, which complicates solutions," Casuga said. "Luckily, for the Rio Grande, I don't believe that's the case. There are tangible solutions to moving water for drought purposes."

Previously-approved ‘safe outdoor space’ to be reconsidered - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News

The first safe outdoor space approved by the Albuquerque Planning Department back in August will now have to be reassessed after a city hearing officer determined neighbors weren’t given proper notice.

The Albuquerque Journal reports land use hearing officer Steven Chavez heard seven appeals over the approval of the Dawn Legacy Pointe safe outdoor space slated for city property near Menaul and I-25.

Chavez ruled that the Planning Department violated due process in its approval by only requiring space organizers to notify two nearby property owners of the plan, rather than the 20 owners that had property within 100 feet of the space.

A consultant for the space says those additional 18 notifications were sent to area residents Tuesday, which a Planning Department spokesperson says started a 10-day clock for the agency to make a second call on whether to OK the project.

The safe outdoor space in Northeast Albuquerque would be available for people without shelter to set up tents or park cars to sleep in.

The City Council voted to legalize such spaces over the summer.

New Mexico braces for confrontational poll watchers - Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's top elections regulator said Wednesday that precautions are being taken to guard against the possibility of deliberate disruptions by party-appointed poll challengers and watchers in the ongoing general election.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said at a news briefing that she is aware of efforts to recruit poll challengers by people who believe the election process is rigged and may want to interfere.

"Maybe they feel like at the end of the day, even if they ultimately get removed, that they've been able to slow down the process, cause folks to get discouraged," Toulouse Oliver said. "As long as a challenger is following the rules and not obstructing the election process and not interposing challenges in bad faith, they can stay there the entire process. But when we start seeing this other behavior, that's when they have to go."

At the same time, Toulouse Oliver has encouraged people with concerns about the integrity of elections to volunteer and work at the polls under oath. She said hundreds of new poll workers have responded.

Poll challengers and watchers have traditionally functioned as an essential element of electoral transparency at polling locations, acting as the eyes and ears of major political parties to help ensure that the mechanics of voting are administered fairly and accurately.

Election officials in several states are raising concerns this year about a surge of election-conspiracy believers who are signing up for those positions, with training by people who have propagated the lie spread by former President Donald Trump and his allies that the 2020 presidential election was riddled with fraud.

Absentee and limited early voting is underway across New Mexico in the general election that culminates on Nov. 8, with a long list of statewide offices in contention, including governor.

Toulouse Oliver said poll workers and county clerks are trained and empowered to respond to disruptive behavior, including delay tactics. She said a presiding poll judge can call on law enforcement agencies to remove a poll challenger or watcher not only for public safety concerns but also behavior that interferes with the ability to carry out duties at a polling place.

"While a challenger or a watcher or observer are completely allowed to ask a question of the poll officials about what they're observing, they are not allowed to dominate that individual's time," Toulouse Oliver said. "They are not allowed to interpose challenges without a basis for that challenge."

Nearly 37,000 ballots have been cast statewide as of Tuesday. Registered Democrats accounted for about 56% of ballots cast.

Certification of New Mexico's primary election in June was nearly derailed by officials in a handful of counties amid voter anger and distrust fueled by unproven conspiracies about vote-counting equipment and election procedures.

Toulouse Oliver is seeking reelection against Republican nominee Audrey Trujillo, a small business owner from Corrales who is campaigning for large-scale changes to elections as part of the America First Secretary of State Coalition.

In the run-up to the election, Toulouse Oliver said her office is monitoring mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook for misinformation about elections and voting.

She said election officials are prepared to debunk and request the removal of misleading posts, and urged residents not to rely on "right-wing extremist" platforms for election information.