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N.M. Election Official: Poll Watchers Not Allowed To Interfere With Voting

Melorie Begay

Voting by mail is underway in New Mexico and across the country, and President Trump’s false claims about election fraud have raised anxiety about the security of absentee ballots. His campaign has also called for an “army” of poll watchers, stoking fears of interference by armed far-right groups. No More Normal host Khalil Ekulona spoke with New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver about prohibitions against voter intimidation and how she’s confident that ballots mailed by Oct. 27 will be counted as they should.

MAGGIE TOULOUSE OLIVER: I've been fortunate, along with my colleagues at the National Association of Secretaries of State, to have had two really robust conversations with the U.S. Postmaster General himself, along with his senior staff. And basically what we have been wanting to ascertain is just to make sure that the Postal Service is up to the challenge of meeting the needs of voters and election officials. They have affirmed to us on multiple occasions that not only are they up to the task but this is their number one priority.

KUNM: Of the people who are planning to vote by mail, should they have any concerns and what can they do to make sure that their ballots are counted?

TOULOUSE OLIVER: Folks should, first and foremost, feel like they can trust the Postal Service and the vote by mail process. We are in regular communication with USPS and working closely together with them, but it's really important that folks also understand that there are some limitations to what the postal service can do. They're not magicians at the end of the day, so we need to make sure everyone who can is giving the Postal Service at least seven days. So, when a ballot is mailed from the county clerk's office, give it about seven days to arrive in your mailbox. Also that folks should make sure if they're going to mail their ballot back that they do it no later than Oct. 27, which is a week before Election Day, to make sure that it does arrive in time to be counted. And, you can track your ballot on NMvote.org and make sure that it does get back to the county clerk's office in time.

KUNM: The President has made many unfounded accusations of voter fraud, to the point that he's mentioned having federal agents and his polling volunteers, his "sheriffs," he calls them, to go and monitor polling places. With what we've seen from militia groups and Trump supporters in response to the BLM protests, where violence and intimidation are very much on display – in June Albuquerque even made the national news for the shooting of a protester at the Oñate statue in Old Town Albuquerque - I've got a few questions related to the growing tension some may feel about this in person. Is monitoring of polling places by non-officials, is that legal?

TOULOUSE OLIVER: We do, of course, allow for some public observation of the election process, but it's very limited. The political parties - Democratic, Republican, Libertarian - can appoint so-called poll challengers. They have to be registered voters in their community, they have to be trained, they have to follow very strict statutes about what they can and cannot do in a polling place. One of the things they cannot do is interact directly with a voter, and/or obstruct the election process in any way. And so if their activities are in any way keeping voters from exercising their right to vote, then they have to be removed from the polling place. Furthermore, it's really important for folks to know that law enforcement, generally, are forbidden from being anywhere near a polling place, unless there is a direct need to respond to a public safety call. So, a poll judge or county clerk can, you know, call and ask "we're having a concern for public safety, please come address this," but otherwise [law enforcement officers] are forbidden from being anywhere near a polling place.

KUNM: Are you worried that as the count continues tensions will rise, and do you have plans or thoughts around that?

TOULOUSE OLIVER: Unfortunately, I think that we're just in very fraught times, here in this country, here in the state. Political polarization is extreme right now. Toxic partisan rhetoric is extreme. The presidential election, in particular, is quite fraught. I think anyone who watched the debate the other night, really intimately understands that. What I think is important for everybody to know and understand is that our democracy has survived and thrived through many difficult times in our nation's history, and I think this time will be no different.

KUNM: Question for you: between now and Inauguration Day, how are you going to get any sleep?

TOULOUSE OLIVER: You know, this is the challenge of being an election administrator. We know our job becomes a 24/7 job, and that's just the reality.


This interview originally aired as part of our show No More Normal. Find the full episode below.


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