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Secretary of State prepares for midterms - and what might come after

Election 2022-New Mexico
Morgan Lee/AP
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, left, and Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver certify results of the state's primary election on Tuesday, June, 28, 2022, at the state Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M. The June 7 primary was nearly derailed by county officials amid voter distrust fueled by unfounded voting machine conspiracies that have spread in the U.S. Toulouse Oliver says she wants to provide better access to accurate information about the election process. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

As the midterm elections approach in November, local officials are preparing not just to run the voting but also to deal with what might come afterward. Since the 2020 presidential election, voices have grown louder falsely claiming that a flawed electoral process or corrupt officials stole an election victory from Donald Trump. County clerks across the state say that conspiracy theorists and even county commissioners routinely challenge their process or accuse them of corruption. KUNM spoke with Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver about all this at a seminar for county clerks in Albuquerque, known as “election school."

MAGGIE TOULOUSE OLIVER: We have one before every statewide election, where we gather all the clerks and their staff around the state and my team. And in this case, one of the things we're really focused on is security: physical security of polling locations and physical security of election officials. And that includes starting from me all the way down to poll workers that are out in the field on election day.

So we've had representatives from the Department of Justice, from the FBI, come and speak. And we're also talking about things like stress management because everyone's going through a lot right now, and has been going through a lot for the last several years. I will say the county clerks that I've been speaking with, for some things haven't really changed very much in their counties. But for a lot of them, they're dealing with a lot of new issues that they've never dealt with before: conspiracy theories about elections, really feeling not just not supported by, but attacked by their own county commissioners, their own local elected officials that they rely on for support to do their jobs.

A lot of them are wondering about their futures, whether they're gonna stick around. They're dealing with these big-picture, "what am I doing with my life and career?" issues on top of needing to make sure we run a secure, fair, accurate election in November of this year.

KUNM: Do you have any concerns about the response or possible response to the outcome of that election? And are you making any plans for that?

TOULOUSE OLIVER: I have concerns about the outcome of any of the elections on the ballot. We have a competitive governor's race here in New Mexico, so we could see a potential vitriolic, negative response. And I think where we've seen a lot of the activity of trying to stir up the conspiracy theories, and really activating the public around, you know, this mis- and disinformation. And so yes, we are preparing. And part of what we're doing right now is what we call pre-bunking. And so we're spending a lot more time and putting a lot more thought into getting voter education materials out there in the world about, how do these processes really work? If you have questions or concerns about the election process, here's how you get those addressed. Here are the processes that are open to the public to be observed. Would you be willing to serve as a poll official so that you yourself are part of running the election if you have questions about the integrity? And hopefully those kinds of efforts will help stem what may come after the fact

KUNM: You talked about how the clerks and their colleagues that you're speaking to here feel under quite a bit of stress and the efforts that you're making to change people's minds about the validity of the electoral process here. I wonder if you've spoken to anyone who does feel that they have been able to gain traction, that they have been able to convince some people who were previously dubious?

TOULOUSE OLIVER: We have a great example in Lincoln County. You know, Lincoln County is a heavily Republican county, it has a Republican county clerk, Republican commissioners, and the county clerk there put together a really fabulous presentation for her commissioners. When it came time to certify the election, she knew commissioners had questions, and that they were listening to a lot of the mis- and disinformation that was being spread. And it was raising their concern level. And she did a whole presentation where she walked through the whole commission, from beginning to end, about how the process is built, the checks and balances, the testing, the double-checking after the fact and in a really practical hands-on way. And so we wanted to highlight that as an example. It's more work, right? You know, our county clerks, they've already done all of this work, these processes have already been open to folks like county commissioners, so it means they have to go that extra mile sometimes, and sometimes it may not work. But in this particular case, it seems to have worked really well. And so we're thinking maybe something like this could be helpful for other jurisdictions as well.

This reporting was supported by the W. K. Kellogg foundation and KUNM listeners 

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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