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Several N.M. counties flout ballot drop box requirement

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Next month’s local elections are the first since the state required counties provide a minimum number of secured ballot drop boxes to ensure voters have sufficient access. But according to the Secretary of State’s Office, nearly half won’t have enough and the majority of those don't have permission.

An administrative rule adopted over the summer requires New Mexico counties to provide one ballot drop box for every 25,000 registered voters and, regardless of size, at least two of them.

Counties can request an exception to the rule from the Secretary of State’s office. Elections Director Mandy Vigil said five of the state’s 33 counties did that and will have only one drop box due mostly to staffing and geographical constraints. The law requires that county clerks or full-time deputies collect the ballots daily and Vigil said some rural counties don’t have the staffing to make the benefit of a second drop box outweigh that cost. She said the minimum of two ballot boxes is waived permanently for these counties, though they can elect to add more for future elections.

Ten counties do not meet the minimum requirement but have not applied for exceptions and are out of compliance with the policy.

“We are going to be working towards compliance with the intention to have them fully implemented by the primary election,” Vigil said. That's in June 2022.  

But for next month’s election, the state said the largest county, Bernalillo, will have just two drop boxes. Based on KUNM’s analysis of the most recent voter registration data, it should have 17. 

Catron, Guadalupe and Quay counties are each providing one drop box this election but have not submitted for an exception to the two-box minimum, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Six counties – all with Republican clerks and majority Republican voters – chose not to provide any drop boxes this election: Chaves, Curry, De Baca, Eddy, Lea and San Juan counties.

Vigil said the counties argue that – because of how the statute is written – providing drop boxes is optional. Her office disagrees. In dispute is use of the word “may” in subsection E: “The official mailing envelope may be returned by depositing the official mailing envelope in a secured container made available by the county clerk to receive voted mailed ballots for that election…”

“A voter isn’t required to use it,” said Vigil, referring to a ballot drop box, “but the county is required to provide it as an option.”

The Associated Press reports that the state Republican Party pushed back against the use of drop boxes in the 2020 general election over security concerns, filing suit against their use in two counties. That case was resolved prior to voting.

Vigil said if her office can’t come to an agreement with the objecting counties over whether ballot drop boxes are required or discretionary by next year’s primary, they may need to seek an outside legal interpretation.

While 15 counties are falling short, nine chose to provide more than the minimum required number of ballot drop boxes based on their voter populations this election, with Santa Fe providing four extra. The others are Taos, Doña Ana, Luna, McKinley, Otero, Roosevelt, Sandoval and Valencia counties.

Vigil said drop boxes are a safe way to vote during the pandemic and that data from other states show they can increase voter turnout. She said she hopes counties will get on board after watching others use them successfully this round, and if not, her office is prepared to legally enforce the policy next year.


UPDATE, 10/22, 5:45 p.m.: Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover contradicted her office's previous statements on non-compliance with state policy in an interview. She says the county is in compliance with the number of permanent ballot drop boxes it must provide. She says the county is only out of compliance in regards to the security status of the boxes, which she says a state vendor is responsible for. 

UPDATE, 10/21, 10:00 a.m.: A spokesperson for Bernalillo County confirmed via email that the county is working to be in compliance with the state's minimum ballot drop box requirement by the primary election in June, 2022. 

UPDATE, 10/16, 11:30 a.m.: A spokesperson for Bernalillo County issued the following statement by email in regards to why the county is providing fewer than the required number of ballot drop boxes for the local election. 

"We are working closely with the Secretary of State’s office to meet the needs of Bernalillo County voters. Unfortunately, the vendor is currently behind in the installation of absentee ballot drop boxes. Voters have several options for delivering their completed absentee ballot. They can hand-deliver it to any of our 20 early voting locations, or on election day to any of our 72 voting locations. You can search for a voting location near you at BerncoVotes.org. In addition to our two ballot drop-off boxes you can also mail in your ballot directly to the clerk’s office." 
This story is part of our Your New Mexico Government project, a collaboration between KUNM Radio and New Mexico PBS. Support for public media provided by the Thornburg Foundation.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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