Albuquerque resident Eleanor Chavez was driving by the 98th and Central early voting site on Saturday, Oct. 17 when she passed a caravan of flag-waving Trump supporters who drove through the parking lot. Hours later, she went back and saw a man with a Trump flag on the back of his truck yelling at voters before the police arrived.
“Who does that? I’ve been voting for a hundred million years, and I’ve never seen anything like that,” Chavez said.
Chavez said she was planning to vote that day but decided to wait because of the activity she observed, which she called “threatening.”
According to an Albuquerque Police Department report, officers responded to a call about the same man Chavez observed. The presiding judge on site told an officer that she was afraid he was going to “shoot up” voters.
Officers issued a criminal trespass notice against the man, who was identified in the police report as Isidro Casarez.
The notice was issued not because Casarez intimidated voters, but because he was “acting disorderly” in the parking lot of a business. He had been parked in front of a T-Mobile store in the same shopping center as the polling site and refused to leave when an employee asked him to.
The Bernalillo County district attorney’s office is investigating the Trump caravan incident, spokesperson Brandale Mills-Cox said.
New Mexico election officials and local nonprofit organizations are taking a number of steps — like training hundreds of poll watchers and setting up a legal hotline — to prepare for the potential of more incidents like that of Oct. 17.
Nina Rucker, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico (ACLU-NM), said that while voters “should feel confident that they can cast their vote safely and securely this election season” because voter intimidation has historically been rare in the state, there are unique conditions this election year that are cause for concern.
“Widespread disinformation regarding voter fraud, increased armed extremist activity in New Mexico and alarming incitements from President Trump have created heightened tensions this election cycle that we felt that we needed to be prepared for,” Rucker said.
President Trump has tried time and again to delegitimize the election — from falsely claiming that absentee ballot fraud is widespread to saying he’d have to “see what happens” when asked if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he be voted out of office.
During a Sept. 29 debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Trump encouraged his supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully.” He later told the Proud Boys, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group, to “stand back and stand by.”
This year has also seen an increase in right-wing violence targeting Black Lives Matter protesters and state governments in response to coronavirus restrictions. Earlier this month, the FBI announced that it had foiled plans to violently overthrow the Michigan state government and kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whom the conspirators called a “tyrant.”
New Mexico is at a moderate risk of increased militia activity around the election, according to a report by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a crisis-mapping nonprofit, and MilitiaWatch.
The state has long been home to racist “border militias” — 45-year-old James Benvie was recently sentenced to nearly two years in federal prison for impersonating a Border Patrol agent. Also, at a June 17 protest against an Old Town statue of colonizer Juan de Oñate, Steven Baca shot and injured protester Scott Williams, immediately after which he was surrounded and protected by the New Mexico Civil Guard, a right-wing militia that was founded by a former neo-Nazi.
In response to these threats, ACLU-NM and Common Cause New Mexico have worked together to train hundreds of poll watchers to monitor voting locations and are promoting a hotline staffed with legal professionals where people can report any incidents of voting intimidation, suppression or other irregularities and get live advice from attorneys.
Common Cause recommends that voters first call their county clerk to report voter intimidation and then the hotline.
Sydney Tellez, associate director of the state’s Common Cause, said that voters should only call the police if they feel that intimidation might escalate to violence, because the presence of uniformed police officers could also be intimidating — particularly for voters of color.
“When we have 10 or 12 police officers showing up at a polling location, that further intimidates people, especially people who live in communities of color that already don’t have a trusting relationship with the police department,” Tellez said.
Police officers are not permitted to be at polling sites other than to vote, assist in maintaining order and, at the request of election officials, observe voting proceedings.
Andrea Serrano, executive director of the grassroots nonprofit OLÉ, said that their work has focused on centering voters of color throughout the state and educating people on their rights.
“We really want to make sure that people know their rights, particularly people of color,” Serrano said. “People of color voting I think are definitely going to be the ones who see an increase in harassment and suppression, and that’s why we want to make sure that Black and brown and Indigenous voters know their rights.”
Serrano added that voter intimidation and suppression are not new problems.
“Voter intimidation has been prevalent in our elections before this year. I don’t even know if I want to call it just voter intimidation,” Serrano said. “We can talk about a lot of different tactics that are used, suppression tactics.”
Serrano said that for years, OLÉ has received reports of voters being asked for identification when it wasn’t required. Election officials are prohibited from discriminating against voters based on race or other protected characteristics, including asking voters of only a certain race to show their ID or to answer questions to vote.
District Attorney Raúl Torrez said he “plans to staff ‘a war room of senior level prosecutors’ who will be available on Election Day to help police officers handle specific disruptions,” Axios reported.
Mills-Cox, the spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, said that Torrez made that comment in reference to a dedicated hotline for providing legal guidance to election officials or officers who observe voter intimidation at the polls.
All of the experts the Daily Lobo spoke with for this article encouraged voters to know their rights — the New Mexico Secretary of State website has a voter information portal that includes guidance on voter intimidation and discriminatory conduct — and emphasized that no one has the right to intimidate voters.
Examples of voter intimidation include aggressive behavior inside or outside a polling place, blocking the entrance to a polling place, brandishing weapons and photographing voters to intimidate them.
Common Cause New Mexico hotline
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Bella Davis is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bladvs