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Remember who really counts the votes

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By Merilee Dannemann

The books are almost closed on the recent election.

I hope we all have learned this truth: Nobody promised you final results on Election Night. Or for several days after, for that matter.

Please get that straight. If the votes don’t all get counted within the first few hours, that does not mean anything went wrong.

We’re spoiled because the TV networks have very accurate analytical methods to project results. Usually the projections are right, but not always.

If CNN or CBS News or Channel 7 announces a winner, that announcement has no constitutional or legal standing.

None whatsoever. Those announcements are estimates by private news organizations.  

What’s real is votes counted by county clerks, watched by observers of both (or maybe more than two) parties. If that takes a few days, it just means something happened to make it take longer. For races above county level, the results are not final until they are certified by the Secretary of State several days later.

In-person votes are the easiest to count. Those ballots, both from early voting and Election Day, go through machines that record and tally them. The totals are added as precinct officials close up and take their materials to the county clerk.

Precinct officials print a paper tape with their results and post it in a window at the precinct. News organizations may have spotters who drive around to the precincts and call the information in to a TV or radio station. So they may have unofficial results faster than the clerk. If you are at a party supporting a candidate, and a TV station says your candidate won, you are free to open the champagne, but the announcement is not proof.

Absentee ballots are different. If you vote absentee, you put the paper ballot into an envelope that does not identify you. You then put the envelope into a second envelope, which does identify you, and which can be delivered or mailed.

The outer envelope is used to check off that you voted, the same as if you had voted in person. An election worker opens the outer envelope, and then the inner envelope is handed off to somebody else so that when the inner envelope is opened, the ballot is not associated with your name and your vote remains secret. This is all done under the scrutiny of observers.

The last category of ballots is called provisional. In New Mexico we don’t have many of those. They are issued where there’s a question about registration, where required ID had not been provided by a first-time voter who had registered by mail, or where a voter had asked for an absentee ballot but then tried to vote in person. Typically that would happen if the absentee ballot arrived in the mail too late. According to Jamie Diaz of the Bernalillo County Clerk’s office, provisional ballots are counted last and have to be evaluated before they are counted.

An unexpectedly large number of absentee ballots caused a hangup this year in Doña Ana County.

As explained by Alex Curtas, of the Secretary of State’s office, counties are allowed to start counting the absentee ballots a few days before Election Day, using poll workers who have been convened as a special board.

Doña Ana County had a higher-than-expected number of absentee ballots. So counting those ballots took longer than usual, but news organizations based their projections on the in-person vote, declaring Yvette Herrell the apparent winner of Congressional District 2. The absentee ballots changed the result.

Was Herrell justified in filing a lawsuit challenging those results? Certainly she had the right to do so. We’ll have to let the courts tell us whether she was justified or just a sore loser.

But this is a cautionary tale about jumping to conclusions too early.