The New Mexico attorney general’s office is investigating allegations of voter suppression in Rio Rancho following an Election Day disaster where voters stood in line for hours, with the long wait reportedly causing some to have to leave without voting.
Describing Election Day in Rio Rancho as a “debacle” and “a near meltdown of voting procedures,” Attorney General Gary King also said in the statement released Monday that his office is “concerned about the possibility of voter suppression in this instance. We are also very concerned about allegations of voter suppression prior to the election. We are working to find out what happened in Rio Rancho and to help make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Sandoval County Bureau of Elections Director Eddie Gutierrez said he hadn’t read the D.A.’s statement, so he couldn’t comment on it, but he did say it’s normal for presidential elections to collect long lines.
“This is not the first time we have had long lines,” Gutierrez said. “What is new is we have VCCs (voting convenience centers).”
The first time the convenience centers were put in place was during the primary, but low voter turnout made it hard to get a good feel for the number of voters expected on Election Day, Gutierrez said.
Factoring in variables such as early voting, Gutierrez said that based on his calculations of predicted voter turnout for Rio Rancho, each polling location should have been able to handle about 46 voters an hour. Each polling location had three machines that printed ballots for an estimate of about 8,300 total voters in Rio Rancho.
The most recent numbers Gutierrez had for Rio Rancho’s Election Day voter turnout was close to his estimate at 7,779. That number does not include provisional ballots, which were still being counted Tuesday.
Gutierrez said that when he saw the long lines on Election Day, he called the distributor of the ballot machines to try to get more, but they were out.
Sandoval County commissioner and Rio Rancho resident Don Chapman said after receiving “many emails and phone calls” from residents upset about the voting process, he’s “coming to the conclusion that there were a lot of people who just gave up” and left the polling site without casting their ballots.
Chapman said he spoke to people who, fed up with waiting, left Rio Rancho polling locations to vote in Bernalillo and had to cast a provisional ballot.
Provisional ballots are cast when there is a question as to the voter’s eligibility to vote. It’s unknown how many provisional ballots were cast by voters leaving Rio Rancho polling locations for locations in other communities.
At the time of publication Tuesday, it was unclear whether the 400 provisional ballots would affect the outcome of any of the races, some of which had only a few hundred votes’ difference between contenders.
Last October, the county commission voted to condense Rio Rancho’s 48 precincts into five “convenience center” polling locations, Chapman said. According to Chapman, the commission made the decision based on a presentation from Sandoval County Clerk Sally Padilla and Gutierrez.
“The way it was presented to us, we all thought it was a good idea,” Chapman said. “I think we were bamboozled by the county clerk and Bureau of Elections that this would be more convenient for the voter.”
Rumors have spread throughout the county that Padilla, a Democrat, was intentionally suppressing the vote in Rio Rancho, which tends to lean Republican.
Gutierrez said he doesn’t like the finger-pointing, but if there is any, it should be directed at him.
“The county clerk has me as her director as Bureau of Elections,” he said. “She trusted my years of experience. If anyone is going to take a hit, it should be me.”
Padilla could not be reached for comment for this article.
Gutierrez also defended how he arrived at his recommendation to place convenience centers, saying his calculations “were pretty darn close.”
But Gutierrez also acknowledged that the problems of long lines would need to be addressed before the next election.
“The bottom line is: The situation needs to be looked at,” he said
He said a decision will have to be made if the city will stick to convenience centers, but add a few more locations and ballot machines, or if the city should go back to having a location for each precinct.
Chapman said he is hoping Rio Rancho residents who had problems at the polls will make their voices heard during the time open for public comment at Thursday’s county commission meeting.
As for the question of whether the vote was intentionally suppressed or simply mismanaged, Chapman said he’s “staying out of partisan politics,” adding, “I don’t know what the intention was, but the result was unacceptable.”