It’s been almost a year since attorney Oriana Sandoval began overseeing a staff of voter registration agents. As executive director of New Mexico Vote Matters, she's seen a shift in the mood of the citizenry. “They feel that the system is corrupt—and not the voting system, but the politicians and people who are actually running the show,” says Sandoval. “They feel that their vote doesn't matter because no one is really looking out for their interests.” Compared with the last general election in 2008, she adds, people are less excited to vote.
Getting a majority of folks to both register and then cast a ballot—crucial acts in any functioning democracy—has rarely been easy work in New Mexico, especially among under-represented populations such as women, youth, Hispanics, Native Americans and those with low incomes.
U.S. Census Bureau figures in 2008 showed 38 percent of low-income people of voting age statewide weren’t registered, totaling about 127,000 citizens. Compare that with a non-registration rate of just 9 percent in households making more than $100,000. And last year, of almost 1.5 million New Mexicans eligible to vote, at least a quarter million were not registered.
Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran is the state’s chief elections official. She’s responsible for overseeing 33 county clerks offices, making sure that voter registration lists are accurate and elections are equitable, accessible, free and fair. When she was running for office in 2010, she told the Alibi that historically low voter turnout in the state was “just sad.”
“When I visit with people,” said Duran, “the one thing they say is, 'My vote won’t count. All these illegals are coming in by the busload to vote. My vote won't count, and every time someone ineligible is voting, it diminishes my vote.’ Which it does. In order to get people to have trust in the process, we must institute voter IDs.”
The problem with voter ID laws, say advocacy groups, is that they create barriers to participation in elections. According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, 11 percent of all U.S. citizens don’t have a photo ID—not a passport, driver’s license or state-issued ID card. Demographically speaking, 9 percent of white citizens lack these forms of ID, compared with 25 percent of African-Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics.
Another shortcoming in Duran’s voter ID agenda, which she admitted to the Alibi in 2009, was that she had no evidence of voter fraud in the state. That, she said, was only because no other secretary of state had ever been aggressive in pursuing the issue.
When Duran took office, it was clear she needed to take aggressive measures to clean up a mess left behind by her predecessors.
Mary Herrera, who served in the office for two terms, was hounded by allegations of criminal wrongdoing that likely contributed to her failed re-election bid. And Duran has had to make big changes after citizens' rights groups helped win a lawsuit filed before she took office. New Mexico was in violation of federal law that requires MVDs and other public assistance offices to register citizens to vote. The outcome: State agencies had to put better measures in place to register voters in those spots.
Duran's office is working diligently to ensure compliance with the lawsuit settlement, says Duran's Chief of Staff Kenneth Ortiz, responding to questions via email. He adds that “the National Voting Rights Act does not just require states to offer voter registrations at state agencies. It also requires states to maintain accurate voter rolls.”
Just after she was sworn in, the Department of Justice informed Duran that ex-SOS Herrera hadn’t accurately kept tabs on state voter registration lists. Removing voters who have moved, died or are otherwise ineligible requires a careful four-year process. Herrera didn’t follow it properly, and the Department of Justice told Duran she'd have to to start all over again.
... All these illegals are coming in by the busload to vote ...
Dianna Duran, during her SOS campaign
In the midst of all this, Duran was determined to get voter ID legislation passed. In March last year, she ordered her staff to cross-check 1.16 million voter registration records against MVD and Social Security databases. She then made a presentation to the state Legislature reporting that 117 foreign nationals with phony Social Security numbers had registered to vote—and 37 had fraudulently cast ballots. All of this was clear indication, she argued, that legislators should pass a law demanding ID at the polls. Lawmakers didn’t buy it, and three voter ID initiatives were killed.
The ACLU and journalist Heath Haussamen requested to see the records, emails and documents that backed up Duran's voter fraud claims. Her office either refused, citing executive privilege, or she handed over documents that so heavily redacted that they were mostly useless.
"My interactions with Duran and her office over the last month have been outrageous,” wrote Haussamen on April 20, 2011, at NMPolitics.net. “I feel as though I'm dealing with the Richardson administration all over again."
The ACLU subsequently filed a lawsuit (which is still ongoing) against Duran's office for violations of open records law.
By July 2011, none of the cases Duran presented to the Legislature, nor any of the 64,000 voter registration records she’d said were irregular, had resulted in criminal charges. An article in the L.A. Times quoted Duran as saying that the “vast majority” of the irregularities her office found were the result of administrative errors in county clerks offices. She also contradicted her previous rhetoric about undocumented residents voting illegally, saying, “I have never asserted there have been huge numbers of people attempting to vote.”
The 19 remaining cases that Duran said looked fraudulent were passed along in November to the state Attorney General’s Office, which is still investigating.
More problems at the Secretary of State’s Office emerged this year. A TV news report aired in July said the printer couldn’t keep up with demand for voter registration paperwork.
After requesting 70,000 forms from the state, Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver received only 35,000 as of January, according to KOB News. The report went on to state that by July, she and five other county clerks were down to a critical number of English-language registration forms.
Duran's Chief of Staff Kenneth Ortiz disputes the story.
“We contacted each of those counties and received emails from them stating that they had never run out of voter registration cards,” Ortiz says. “The registration cards are being printed by the State Printing Office now. Counties have the ability to order the voter registration forms on an ongoing basis to meet their needs.”
Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver tells the Alibi that the KOB account of her office's experience was spot-on.
“At the end of June, we were down to almost nothing. We had 100 cards here in the office. … For us, that was a crisis point."
When the KOB story aired, says Toulouse Oliver, “at that point I had placed an emergency order with the printer, saying that I'll pay for it if I have to, just to get us through.” The Secretary of State's Office soon delivered 20,000 new forms, and an additional shipment of 20,000 more should meet demand through the voter registration deadline on Tuesday, Oct. 9, Toulouse Oliver says.
“It was a brief period, but it was a down-to-nothing situation,” she says.
Sandoval of New Mexico Vote Matters says that her group both picks up and submits state registration paperwork at county clerks’ offices around the state. She also says that during one week in early July, none of the county clerks her organization contacted could spare English-language forms for her group to use. Sandoval's staff was forced to use Spanish-language forms or printouts of federal forms from the Internet. English-speaking citizens were wary of signing Spanish forms they couldn't understand, says Sandoval. Both voter registration agents and county clerk staff aren't always experienced with the format of the federal form—which means they have a lower rate of being processed accurately. “We can point to several New Mexicans that wanted to register to vote but couldn’t because we didn’t have the appropriate material,” Sandoval says.
In the meantime, Duran rushed to comply with the Department of Justice mandate to clean up voter registration lists, and progressive advocacy groups cried foul. David Thomson, a lawyer for the state Democratic Party, sent a letter to Duran in August. He alleged wording in an address confirmation mailer sent to 177,000 New Mexicans has the potential to suppress voter turnout.
Ortiz at the Secretary of State's Office says there's no basis for such arguments. “We consulted extensively with the U.S. Department of Justice and the N.M. Attorney General's Office on the language for the cards before the final printing and mailing,” he says. “The language used was based on the National Voter Registration Act and New Mexico statutes, as approved by those two offices.”
Duran told Capitol Report New Mexico that she sees a double standard at work in criticisms of the mailing. She says the language was the same as what had been sent out under previous administrations, but only now are people concerned about it.
Duran’s complaint about partisan bickering actually echoes those of voting rights advocates, who argue that the critical work of election chiefs should be transparent and immune to political party agendas. Citizens aren't well-served, says Sandoval, when voter registration and elections conduct take a back seat to issues like voter fraud—which she says is a politically motivated myth.
“There’s never been evidence of voter fraud in New Mexico or nationally,” says Sandoval. “There’s no widespread conspiracy by illegals to take over our democratic system. The real crisis here is that 50 percent of our electorate are not even registered to vote.”