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Election Officials Grapple With Voting Irregularities in New Mexico

October 17, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Recent elections in New Mexico have encountered voting irregularities, including missing ballots and technical troubles. After a report on efforts to ensure a fair election in Albuquerque, an election law expert examines the voting problems.

JIM LEHRER: And now, the last of our week of “Big Picture” reporting from the battleground state of New Mexico. It’s about the voting itself.

Correspondent Gene Grant of KNME-Albuquerque has the story.

GENE GRANT, KNME Correspondent: Eighty miles west of Albuquerque, along historic Route 66, sits the tiny community of Grants, the site of a lingering electoral controversy since June.

At stake was the Democratic nomination for a State Senate seat. David Ulibarri was declared the winner by just five votes, despite the fact that 182 ballots went missing.

Clemente Sanchez lost, and he’s still frustrated that even a state investigation hasn’t led to the missing ballots.

CLEMENTE SANCHEZ: The investigation that’s been going on for the last month-and-a-half, two months, maybe more than two months, and they have no idea what happened to these 182 ballots.

GENE GRANT: Sanchez says he and many of his supporters have lost faith in the system.

VOTER: There were so many ballots lost that — I don’t know. Was it mine? Was it my family’s? What happened to them?

GENE GRANT: Cibola County Clerk Eileen Martinez oversaw the vote, and she’s in the dark, too.

EILEEN MARTINEZ, Cibola County Clerk: I don’t know what happened to those ballots. And the attorney general’s office was here and they investigated, and we got a letter from them that there was no misconduct or anything like that, so we don’t know where those ballots went, so…

GENE GRANT: New Mexico has a history of razor-thin election margins, which means small problems have the potential to add up to larger troubles, and not just troubles over missing ballots, but counting them, too. It’s taken weeks to certify elections here in recent years.

Provisional ballots — ballots cast by voters whose eligibility was in question or who went to the wrong polling place — are partly to blame, because it takes a long time to verify all the information.

Maggie Toulouse Oliver is the clerk in New Mexico’s most populous county, Bernalillo, which includes Albuquerque.

MAGGIE TOULOUSE OLIVER, Bernalillo County Clerk: It’s so funny. I always get asked the question, “Why does it take so long in New Mexico?” Well, it always takes that long. Nobody’s paying attention unless it’s a close election.

If the provisional ballots are not going to determine the outcome of the election, the process is largely ignored by the general public, because the outcome has been decided.

GENE GRANT: Technical troubles with voting equipment have vexed state officials, too. In 2004, more than 20,000 ballots were cast without a vote for president, leading some to charge that touch-screen machines hadn’t properly counted the votes.

George W. Bush won the state by less than 6,000 votes. That led New Mexico to switch to optical scan machines that use paper ballots, like many other states.

Toulouse Oliver believes that was a good decision by the state.

MAGGIE TOULOUSE OLIVER: If there’s ever a question, if there’s ever a doubt about the accuracy of the system, we can go back and look at those paper ballots. We can hand-count them.

If a machine fails in the course of an election, a voter can still vote. They don’t have to stop or wait or be turned away from the polls, so there are so many advantages to having a paper system over an electronic system.

Machine and ballot troubles

Eileen Martinez
Cibola County clerk
There's never an error-free election. All we can do is train our poll officials more intensely.

GENE GRANT: But the return to paper ballots has come under fire, too. Republican State Representative Justine Fox-Young.

JUSTINE FOX-YOUNG (R), State Representative: I fought really hard against the paper ballot system, only because it's meant -- and we knew it would mean -- terribly long lines for voters on Election Day and early voting, of course, as well as much -- greatly increased chance of losing ballots and hanky-panky with ballots during the counting process.

GENE GRANT: Fox-Young also contends that county clerks have been forced to deal exclusively with one company to service their ballot machines, resulting in high costs to maintain voting equipment.

JUSTINE FOX-YOUNG: We have not provided them with enough resources to cover that. And, frankly, I don't know that the state can.

The company is now basically extorting the clerks for what they're calling mechanical updates and other services in the interim, and the clerks have no choice.

GENE GRANT: Cibola County Clerk Martinez acknowledges she doesn't have the resources to cover all of the costs associated with the machines.

Do you have enough money to service these machines?

EILEEN MARTINEZ: No, we don't.

GENE GRANT: The trouble with ballots and machines are just part of the problem here. Soon after the deadline passed to register new voters, a familiar controversy resurfaced: Questions have been raised about whether some of those registrations are fraudulent.

This year, a record number of new voters have been added to the rolls, many by so-called third-party organizations, like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN.

The group's regional director, Matthew Henderson, takes pride in the number of voters his organization has registered in closely contested states.

MATTHEW HENDERSON, ACORN Southwest Regional Director: We shattered our previous record, a national record, registering 1.3 million people around the country, 80,000 people here in New Mexico.

GENE GRANT: But not all those registrations have passed muster with Bernalillo County Clerk Toulouse Oliver. Her office has flagged close to 1,500 potentially fraudulent cards.

MAGGIE TOULOUSE OLIVER: And they have been set aside. And every attempt has been made to try to contact the ostensible voter that is on the card.

And so I think that, to the extent that this was attempted, if it's true that the effort was to try to create fraudulent voters who would appear at the polls on Election Day, well, those folks aren't going to have the opportunity.

GENE GRANT: Nationally, Republicans are challenging ACORN in states across the country for allegedly processing thousands of faulty registration cards, and the FBI is investigating.

GOP Attorney Pat Rogers worries some questionable votes will be cast.

PAT ROGERS, Republican Lawyer: I don't know how many and nor do I know, nor can I tell you what the vote difference is going to be between Barack Obama and John McCain or our important federal elections.

I can't tell you if those are going to be close or not. I can't tell you that there's going to be enough fraudulent votes to make a difference, but I can tell you unequivocally there are going to be fraudulent votes cast. And if it's a close election, it could impact it.

GENE GRANT: ACORN's Henderson doesn't buy that.

MATTHEW HENDERSON: It's just hysteria that they're trying to stir up in order to create concern about the election. And it's a real shame, because the story here is that we should be encouraging all these new voters to vote, and instead they're trying to cast a shadow on it.

GENE GRANT: University of New Mexico election expert Lonna Atkeson says there's no firm evidence for widespread fraud.

LONNA ATKESON, University of New Mexico: There's anecdotal stories. But when you chase those stories down, you often can't find strong evidence that those stories are real or even any evidence that those stories are real.

GENE GRANT: Add to all that a perception that elections here can be quirky. Take, for example, a state law which mandates that ties be decided by a game of chance, in this case, a game of high-card draw in a recent small-town mayoral race.

ELECTION OFFICIAL: We have two booths right there, and...

GENE GRANT: Across the state, county clerks say they are doing what they can to ensure a fair election.

EILEEN MARTINEZ: There's never an error-free election. All we can do is train our poll officials more intensely.

GENE GRANT: But those efforts are lost on former State Senate candidate Clemente Sanchez, who still feels stung by the process.

CLEMENTE SANCHEZ: So do I have faith in the system? At the way it's run now, the way it's done, no. Unfortunately, I ended up being the guinea pig on this. My election and I never would've expected anything like that. But I have really -- I'm really nervous about the general election, not only the local race, but also the national race.

GENE GRANT: When it comes to November's election, one thing is certain: the closer the vote, the greater the scrutiny will be.

Country-wide voting issues

Richard Hasen
Loyola Law School
[W]e're obviously going to focus on places like Ohio or Florida or Colorado, where, in a very close election, those electoral votes could matter for the outcome of the presidency.

JIM LEHRER: And New Mexico isn't the only state with potential voting problems. Judy Woodruff reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For a broader look at voting issues around the country, we're joined by Rick Hasen. He's a professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and an expert on election law.

Professor Hasen, thanks for talking with us. What are the main voting-related problems around the country right now?

RICHARD HASEN, Loyola Law School: Well, there are different kinds of problems. Some of the problems relate to machines. And, you know, since 2000, when we learned that the punch-card machines were a big problem, we switched over to other kinds of machines.

And in some places, like in Palm Beach County, they're on their third set of machines in three major elections. And so some of it relates to rolling out new equipment. Some of it, as we just heard in that report, relate to questions over voter registration and matching databases. And some of them is just a misinformation about who's entitled to vote and what the procedures are going to be on Election Day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are the problems mainly concentrated in the battleground states where we expect the vote to be the closest?

RICHARD HASEN: Well, I think that certainly the most attention nationally has been paid there. But there are problems, you know, all over the country.

I think we know that there will be some problems on Election Day, scattered in different places throughout the country, but we're obviously going to focus on places like Ohio or Florida or Colorado, where, in a very close election, those electoral votes could matter for the outcome of the presidency.

Voter registration controversies

Richard Hasen
Loyola Law School
Turns out, though, that, from all of our studies, there's almost no evidence that fraudulent registration leads to actual election fraud on Election Day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk about the controversy surrounding ACORN, the group that was mentioned in that report, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform. Now, if you can take the partisanship out of that and help us understand, what's the problem alleged to be?

RICHARD HASEN: Well, you know, the way that this country works, unlike many other mature democracies, is that we don't have the government in the business of doing voter registration. We have private third parties going out and doing it.

And so ACORN has been very successful. I think the figure is around 1.3 million registrations they've turned in. And it turns out that some of those registration forms are either fraudulent or contain incorrect information or duplicate information.

And so there's a question as to what's going to happen with those forms. And there's a concern that some of those forms will lead to actual election fraud on Election Day.

Turns out, though, that, from all of our studies, there's almost no evidence that fraudulent registration leads to actual election fraud on Election Day, with people pretending they're Mickey Mouse or Joe Montana and showing up at the polls on Election Day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So potentially, you're saying, how big a disruption when it comes to counting votes?

RICHARD HASEN: Well, you know, in terms of counting votes, I don't think we're talking about a big disruption. The question is in terms of the bloated voter rolls and what it takes for election officials before Election Day to go through all those cards.

And in a lot of states by law, any cards that a third-party group like ACORN collects they have to turn in, so each of those cards have to be investigated, and that takes time, and so that's a problem.

But it doesn't translate into any kind of concern about the integrity of the actual vote itself on Election Day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, there was a U.S. Supreme Court ruling today that's getting some attention, having to do with Ohio and its voter registration list. Help us understand what that's about.

RICHARD HASEN: Yes, well, you remember Ohio was very close last time between Kerry and Bush, and whoever won Ohio won the outcome, so it was a closely fought contest. There's been a lot of registration.

And what the Ohio Republican Party was trying to do was to force the secretary of state there, who's the chief elections officer, to turn over a list of counties of mismatches between the voter registration database and the motor vehicles database.

And the report said that there could have been up to 200,000 mismatches, although lots of those are probably the result of data entry error or different uses of a name, like Joe and Joseph, or Senior and Junior, and those kinds of problems.

But those names will now -- do not have to be produced by the secretary and passed on to the election board.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what is that -- what's the upshot of that? What does that mean?

RICHARD HASEN: Well, so the question is what the Ohio Republican Party wanted those names for. And one possibility is they wanted those names to mount voter challenges on Election Day, to have a list of people to look -- be on the lookout for at the polling places on Election Day.

And we don't know if that would have happened or not. And there still could be challenges, but we don't have this list from the secretary of state that could provide the basis for this any more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, essentially, less -- essentially, we think, though, that's resolved, not expected to be anymore legal action brought in Ohio on that, on the issue, the voter registration list?

RICHARD HASEN: Yes, well, on that particular issue, I think we're done, but there's been other litigation. There was an order this morning from the Ohio Supreme Court that the secretary has to allow observers in to see what's going on in early voting.

There's been litigation over missed boxes that needed to be checked on registration forms. There's still other stuff going on.

And what's happened since 2000 is election administration has become more partisan. The parties are fighting more over these things. And so, generally, there's just been a big uptick in litigation since 2000 over these kinds of problems.

Obstacles for college students

Richard Hasen
Loyola Law School
[U]ntil we move to a system where we have nonpartisan election officials administering our federal elections on a national scale, it's hard to see how we get out of this cycle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Hasen, we've also seen issues raised around college students. How much of an obstacle do college students face around the country? What's the problem potentially there?

RICHARD HASEN: Well, you know, you're allowed to vote where you are basically domiciled, where you expect that you're going to be living for the foreseeable future, and so college students do have the right to register and vote in their college town, but sometimes that gets local resistance and sometimes it's misinformation.

So we saw reports last month of some of the Virginia county election officials giving wrong information, such as saying that, if a college student voted in a college town, that the parents of the student wouldn't be able to claim that student as a dependent on income taxes.

There's a lot of misinformation out there about when college students can vote and where they can vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bottom line, we're going to hear more about that?

RICHARD HASEN: You know, I don't know that that one's going to be a big one on Election Day. You know, the best thing, in terms of election administration, is if the election just isn't close, because if we look really closely at things, there are still problems. In fact, by some measures, I think we're in worse shape than we were in 2000.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, again, I mean, you're saying we should brace ourselves for more -- to hear much more about this between now and Nov. 4?

RICHARD HASEN: Yes, I think so, and I think also because the parties are playing this up. You're hearing a lot from Republicans about voter fraud; you're hearing a lot from Democrats about voter suppression.

You know, until we move to a system where we have nonpartisan election officials administering our federal elections on a national scale, it's hard to see how we get out of this cycle, where we see this flurry of litigation in the months coming up to Election Day

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rick Hasen from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, thanks very much.