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With the general election just five days away, the timing couldn’t be much worse for the Secretary of State’s (SOS) office to start having major problems.
Next Tuesday’s nationwide general election will stretch to Saturday, Nov. 6 in New Mexico because the printer of ballot proofs for six counties, including Los Alamos, was behind schedule getting the proofs out. The deadline was Sept. 18 for county clerks to send absentee ballots to military personnel and residents overseas.
Los Alamos Election Manager Gloria Maestas said that a SOS sanctioned printer, which printed the ballots for all 33 New Mexico counties, was late returning ballot proofs to six counties. The printer did not return the Los Alamos ballot proof until midnight Sunday, Sept. 19. Her office did not see the proof for the first time until Monday morning, Sept. 20.
The Los Alamos proof contained a number of errors, which caused further delays as the proof was sent back and forth between the printer and the clerk’s office, Maestas said.
“This has never happened before…we can’t mail out the ballots if we don’t have them,” she said.
Maestas said 56 ballots were finally electronically mailed to Los Alamos residents overseas and in the military on Sept. 21.
Chief Deputy Clerk Sheryl Nichols of Los Alamos County said that while the printer problem affected just six counties, Secretary of State Mary Herrera signed a blanket consent decree, without amending it, thereby embroiling all 33 counties in the extension.
“She’s (Herrera) put the burden on all the counties and essentially changed the election date to Nov. 6,” Nichols said.
Nichols is referring to the fact that Herrera signed the consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to allow the ballots from all 844 New Mexico voters to be counted up to four days after Election Day.
Herrera emphasized in a news release that with email and fax ballots accepted, there is no reason to believe that ballots will not have the time to be returned.
Nichols, who is president of the state association for county clerks, said this week she and clerks across the state encountered another significant problem: they were unable to access the statewide voter system.
Nichols said Wednesday afternoon that the error message she received indicated that the SOS failed to pay the licensing fee.
“This is one of the major ways that we can prevent voter fraud,” Nichols said.
Officials in Santa Fe, Dona Ana and San Juan counties said that early voting was delayed at some locations because poll workers weren’t able to access the system.
The county officials blamed the SOS’s office for the expiration of a security certificate, which is needed for a secure online connection with the voter registration system. The officials said it’s the responsibility of the state to pay a third-party vendor for the security technology.
Robert Adams, deputy county clerk in Bernalillo County, said he sent an e-mail in August reminding the SOS’s office that the security certificate for the state’s computer system would expire this month and needed to be renewed. Adams released a copy of the e-mail to the Associated Press.
The early voting glitch has now been resolved, but county clerks said there’s another problem. The computer system is overburdened.
That causes delays for counties in processing and printing daily reports of voters that have cast ballots so far. Candidates and political parties use the reports to ensure their supporters turn out and vote.
Poll workers need to connect to the system to verify whether a voter is registered and to determine their precinct so a correct ballot can be used.
“The whole system is at a standstill. It is unbelievable,” said Denise Lamb, who runs the bureau of elections in Santa Fe County.
Deputy Secretary of State Don Francisco Trujillo said the office was trying to ease delays by developing procedures for counties to reduce the workload on the computer system.
The SOS’s office will do the same by processing reports at night during off-peak hours, he said.
However, Trujillo added that the capacity of the computer system can’t be expanded without money approved by the legislature.
Contact Carol A. Clark at email@example.com
Associated Press Political Writer Barry Massey contributed to this report.