MESILLA, N.M. — Voters in Doña Ana County may have experienced long lines at the polls on Election Day, but it is the over 8,000 absentee ballots that are currently overwhelming county officials, delaying final results.
Doña Ana County Clerk Amanda López Askin said the county had “triple to quadruple the amount of absentee ballots this year” compared to both 2014 and 2016. She said the Absent Voter Board (AVB) — the independent seven-member body appointed for two years to tabulate absentee ballots — had been expecting a smaller volume of “around 2,000 or 3,000 ballots.”
López Askin said there are approximately 8,000 absentee ballots in total, plus any walk-ins that were dropped off at the County Clerk’s Office and other polling locations Tuesday before the polls closed.
López Askin decided just after midnight last night to halt the counting process and resume it Wednesday at 10 a.m.
“I saw the fatigue, I saw the swollen hands from opening ballots,” López Askin said. “It was not reasonable or right to expect them to work throughout the night.”
When the counting process was closed last night, 4,974 votes had been counted. However, due to the way absentee ballots are tabulated, results are delivered all at once, without initial counts.
“I think there’s a misconception that County Clerk staff handle the ballots,” López Askin told the Daily Lobo. “We don’t touch the ballots — that’s all the Absent Voter Board.”
These absentee votes (and later 1,000 provisional ballots) may be crucial in determining an important — and contentious — House race. Republican Yvette Herrell currently holds a slim advantage of approximately 2,000 votes over Democrat Xochitl Torres Small in the Congressional District 2 (CD-2) race.
As first reported by the Daily Lobo, CD-2 is still undecided. Multiple media outlets called the race for Herrell as early at 10:20 p.m., when she had a three to four-point lead.
Just after 10:30 p.m. she gave a victory speech. Torres Small refused to concede the race, saying it’s important that everybody’s voice be heard.
Early Wednesday morning Rob Burgess, senior advisor for Herrell’s campaign, sent out an emailed statement.
"Last night, Yvette Herrell was declared the winner of New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District," Burgess said. "We know that an open and honest process in Doña Ana County will confirm the outcome of this election."
Both Torres Small and Herrell’s campaign have declined to comment further until all the remaining ballots are counted.
In addition to the seven members of the board, five members from each the Democratic and Republican parties were deputized to be poll workers to work on Wednesday, opening envelopes.
“They were given specific instructions, they are now poll workers,” López Askin said.
“Regardless of what party they are, they are now under the direction of our presiding judge.”
When asked about the impact of uncounted ballots on the results, López Askin said that isn’t part of her job.
“I don’t speculate, ever,” she said.
There was a small moment of tension Wednesday morning between poll workers and observers over ballot bubbles not being filled in all the way, and whether the machine can read them, which ended when the presiding judge brought out the handbook.
Anatomy of a Ballot
Deputy County Clerk Lindsey Bachman walked the Daily Lobo through the Absent Voter Board’s trained process.
The ballot is received and the barcode on the outside is scanned. AVB opens the outer flap and enters the process of “qualifying the ballot, which means to verify it’s signature and voter information such as name and address.”
Then becomes the process of opening ballots, which López Askin called “a very time-consuming process.” There are three envelopes, an outer, inner and secrecy envelope.
Then ballots are placed into the sole machine for tabulating the results. López Askin said no initial results can be projected because all absentee ballots must be entered into the machine before results are released.
“It does not matter if we have 7,999 (absentee ballots) and we’re waiting on one, we still cannot give those results until they are all in,” López Askin said.
This story is still developing. .
Danielle Prokop is a senior reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ProkopDani.