New Mexico voting surges, shifts to absentee balloting

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Local election official struggled Wednesday to fully tally an avalanche of absentee ballots in a primary election that locked in several female nominees for Congress and marked a progressive uprising in the state Senate.

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Tabulation delays left the outcome uncertain in a three-way Republican contest in the 3rd Congressional District, where U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan is running for U.S. Senate as Sen. Tom Udall retires. The contenders are Navajo Nation member Karen Evette Bedonie of Mexican Springs, environmental engineer Alexis Johnson of Santa Fe and former Santa Fe County commissioner Harry Montoya.

Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar missed a Wednesday evening statutory deadline for completing the count and filed with a district court judge for an extension through Saturday, though she hopes her agency can finish sooner.

Taos County Clerk Anna Martinez attributed the delay there to a “dereliction of duty” by five members of an absentee balloting board who walked out in exhaustion on Tuesday night and had to be replaced.

“One of the absentee board members simply left his duties, claiming that it was too stressful,” said the extension request from Martinez. Later, between 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., "the rest of the absentee board left without completing their duties, claiming that they did not realize how much work was involved, that they were tired and could not go on.”

More than 247,000 absentee ballots were cast statewide — up from about 23,000 in 2016 — as state authorities encouraged people to vote remotely by mail to guard against the coronavirus.

Overall voting surged past 375,000 from roughly 320,000 in the 2016 presidential primary. Former Vice President Joe Biden won the Democratic presidential nomination, and Trump won state GOP backing to seek re-election.

“What you can see is our electorate is more engaged than it has been in a primary for decades,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico. “They've had some time for life to slow down. ... They were watching more news, getting more input about this election. They got fired up and wanted to vote.”

At the same time, Ferguson said Common Cause is taking stock of whether participation was hindered by the state's timetable for initiating absentee ballot applications and lengthy delivery times in remote regions.

Native American communities are of particular concern amid continued coronavirus lockdowns and curfews that shut down many polling locations, restricted travel and may have contributed to mail delays. Only ballots received by 7 p.m. Tuesday are being counted toward election results.

Tracey Sisco, a 58-year-old clerk at a general store, went to her precinct polling place at a firehouse in the town of Blanco on Tuesday to vote in the Republican primary and found it was closed. A sign directed her to vote in another town 10 miles (16 kilometers) away, she said.

“Being disabled, I can’t jump at the drop of a hat,” said Sisco, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and favored Johnson in the congressional race as a tough, pro-life candidate. “I just feel like I was robbed of my right to vote.”

The Democratic nomination in the 3rd District went to attorney Teresa Leger Fernandez, a professional advocate for Native American communities and voting rights, who defeated six competitors, including former CIA operative Valerie Plame. Democrats have monopolized the 3rd Congressional District with the exception of one special election, starting with former Gov. Bill Richardson in 1982.

Craig Quanchello, the tribal governor of Picuris Pueblo, on Wednesday said Leger Fernandez was generating excitement and would strengthen the state’s Washington delegation on tribal issues if elected.

“She is the most knowledgeable and experienced in Native American issues,” he said. “We’re hopeful she will be a positive asset for the pueblo.”

Republican primary voters embraced a well-known former television weatherman, Mark Ronchetti of Albuquerque, as their Senate nominee.

Former state Rep. Yvette Herrell won the GOP nomination for a second time to the southern 2nd Congressional District, setting up a rematch with Democrat U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of Las Cruces. Herrell ran as a Trump loyalist against petroleum executive and former lobbyist Claire Chase of Roswell, a first-time political candidate.

Ronchetti, the former newscaster, defeated anti-abortion activist and Navajo Nation member Elisa Martinez of Albuquerque and professor Gavin Clarkson of Las Cruces. The Libertarian Party is fielding Bob Walsch in the Senate race.

Ronchetti ran a campaign with upbeat slogans about the future and highlighted his support of Trump’s border wall in visits to the area.

In state legislative races, progressive Democratic candidates ousted leading Senate incumbents including Senate President Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, Senate finance committee chairman John Arthur Smith of Deming and banker and Sen. Clemente Sanchez of Grants. Those candidates had stood in the way of the legalization of recreational marijuana, overturning the state's dormant ban on abortion and greater spending from a multibillion-dollar state education trust fund.

State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said his party sees an opportunity to win over moderate Democratic and independent voters in fall elections.

In New Mexico's metropolitan 1st Congressional District, former police detective Michelle Garcia Holmes won the Republican nomination to take on first-term Rep. Debra Haaland, on of the first Native American women to serve in Congress. The compact district overlapping Albuquerque hasn’t been represented by a Republican since 2009.


Associated Press reporter Cedar Attanasio contributed to this report from Santa Fe.