What Happened in New Mexico?
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The AP called it. CNN called it. The Farmington Times called it. By Nov. 9, Bush had close to a 7,000-vote lead in New Mexico.
Despite early evidence that Bush had won, both Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron and Gov. Bill Richardson maintained that the uncounted provisional ballots would swing the state to Kerry.
Provisional ballot results are still being tabulated in most counties in New Mexico. In Santa Fe County, provisional ballot counting was completed over the weekend, with 516 going to Kerry and 148 going to Bush.
Provisional ballots are new to this election, required by the Help America Vote Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2002. They are designed to allow citizens to vote when they believe they are eligible but their names do not appear on the precinct lists. After the election, the provisional ballots are then verified. On the county level, that process won't be completed until Friday, Nov. 12. The official statewide count won't be released until Nov. 23.
Of course, after Ohio and Florida went red, New Mexico's place in this election became merely symbolic. But a symbolic victory may be important to both sides. Greg Graves, the head of the Republican campaign here, has accused Vigil-Giron and Richardson of doctoring the election results to save Richardson's national career. (The governor's stated belief that New Mexico would ultimately be won by Kerry by 1 percent seemed to flame these suspicions). The Secretary of State has defended the integrity of the election, saying that she has surveyed other states that have been called for a candidate and they are still counting provisional ballots too. "The GOP is ignorant to the election process," says Vigil-Giron. "There's a process, there aren't instant results that give a state immediately. I'm surprised the media in other states called the election, it was not based on anything but exit polls. Unless they have a crystal ball to see the provisional ballots, the election isn't over."
Santa Fe County Clerk Rebecca Bustamante concurs. "There's no way to change the results coming from us," she says. "The GOP should contact each county and do the count themselves."
Election reform advocates, however, say New Mexico's process is far from perfect. "The problem with provisional ballots is that there's no uniformity in terms of examining and counting them," says Matt Brix, the state director of Common Cause, a national election reform organization. "Had New Mexico been in play, the count wouldn't be complete for many days. The process needs to be tightened up."
On Nov. 8, Vigil-Giron announced the State had asked the New Mexico Supreme Court to clarify two district court rulings made Nov. 5 in Sandoval and Dona Ana counties regarding the amount of public information from rejected provisional ballots. The rulings may "violate state and federal laws," says Vigil-Giron. They allow political parties to see Social Security numbers and dates of birth." She wanted the Supreme Court to rule quickly so there could be uniformity in the state.
Provisional ballots weren't the only factor in play for the 2004 election. It also featured a massive shift from voting on Election Day to early voting. Early voting in 2000 comprised just under 200,000 votes. This year, 430,000 voted early. "I don't know what effect it had on the outcome, it may not have even affected turnout," says Bureau of Elections director Denise Lamb. "You just have a base of dedicated voters, it shifts the time they vote but not the outcome."
Six states with record turnouts in 2000 implemented same-day registration: Minnesota, Maine, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Wyoming and Idaho. Election reform advocates say same-day registration would help New Mexico. "It would help avoid the provisional ballot. It would enfranchise, rather than disenfranchise many voters, and would be a smoother process," says Brix.