Election Master

News & Politics
Following is an interview with Denise Lamb, director of the state Bureau of Elections for New Mexico.
Julia Goldberg: Before we get into other people's dire predictions for the Nov. 2 election, as the director of the state Bureau of Elections, what's your worst case scenario?

Denise Lamb: You know something – I never have a worst case scenario. I have a hopeful heart.

Julia Goldberg: You've been skeptical about the concerns people have raised about electronic voting. But everyone, from the New York Times to Wired Magazine, is taking them seriously. What do you attribute that to?

Denise Lamb: In our state, we have 16 years of experience with electronic voting machines. To the New York Times and Wired Magazine, this is a new issue. I'm going to point out to you that in New York, in Manhattan, where the New York Times is located, they still vote on lever voting machines. A lever voting machine has no paper whatsoever, not even audit tape to post on the door. If Manhattan has been voting for all these years with a lever that doesn't generate one iota, not one scrap, of paper and the New York Times is concerned about electronic voting machines, they need to look a little closer to home.

Julia Goldberg: I'm sure Ralph Nader's status on the ballot will change again between the time of this interview and our publication deadline. But, as of now, Nader's appeal before the Supreme Court was pending to get his name on the ballot. If successful, how will that effect the election? Will the ballots get reprinted? Will the overseas ballots have to be remailed?

Denise Lamb: You know something – I can't talk about it. I'm under threat by my lawyers.

Julia Goldberg: Oh. Well, can you answer this? Republicans and others have raised the issue that some of the judges ruling on the Nader ballot issue are Democratic donors. The Secretary of State's Office, where you work, also has been accused of partisanship regarding electoral matters. How can the public trust that elected officials don't let their own political standing effect their decisions?

Denise Lamb: Because we have impartially enforced the election code. Let's look at it this way, and this is one thing I can talk about in terms of the Nader case – we put Nader on the ballot. We were sued to take it off. The courts tell us what to do. Now we're being sued to put him back on by another group. When you are the filing office and you're impartially carrying out the election code, the fact that everybody sues you is a good thing. It means you're doing your job. We're obviously very impartial in the way we do our job because we are being constantly sued by all parties. If we were only being sued by one party, that might be a problem.

Julia Goldberg: Let's talk about another of the election issues that's been in the courts lately: Voter ID for first-time voters. First, a judge ruled they would have to show it. Then he reversed and said it would be too difficult. Now, some County clerks are planning to require first-time voters to show ID, some aren't, and your office has legally challenged the clerks planning to require ID. Break this down a little bit.

Denise Lamb: The big issue is that the election code has to be uniformly applied throughout the state. If you remember back in the 2000 election, the case that went to the Supreme Court, Bush and Gore, the issue that ultimately decided that is due process. You had different standards being used in different counties in Florida. In one county, a hanging chad was a vote, in another county a dimpled chad was a vote and so that was the basis of that case. You can't have people's votes being counted differently. Our election code has recognized that for a long, long time. If you read the Secretary of State's major duties in the election code, what the Secretary of State is supposed to do is obtain and maintain uniformity in the application, operation and interpretation of the election code. That's our number one duty.

Julia Goldberg: Compared to the eight or so statewide elections you've overseen, how would you characterize this one?

Denise Lamb: Probably about the worst ever.

Julia Goldberg: Can you talk about why?

Denise Lamb: Yes, I will talk about why. The reason this is so difficult is the country is just so extremely polarized and New Mexico is, also. The parties and all their lawyers and political operatives are working as hard as they can to get votes for their guy. And, sometimes, that's at cross purposes with the Secretary of State's idea that, first and foremost, you let people go to the polls and vote. So I think that a lot of these court cases are based in a perceived partisan advantage – by whom, I shall not say.

Julia Goldberg: How long are you going to work on Election Day?

Denise Lamb: I'll be in here at 6 am and will be here until the last county reports their results. With any luck, that will be at three or four in the morning. I typically spend the night here. There's a couch, I bring my pillow and my blankie and, if I'm lucky, I'll get a couple of hours sleep in the office. There have been elections I've been able to go home. Primary election – I got to go home for that one. It was a low turnout election. With any luck, if everyone reports and we don't have any problems, it should be over by 4 am.

Julia Goldberg: Who was the first president you voted for?

Denise Lamb: The first president I voted for? Let's see, I had to be 21 when I voted, so let's see. I'm going to have to use some math here. Whoever ran for president in 1968. That was the year Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Whoever was running in '68, that was my first election. Who I voted for? I never say.

Julia Goldberg: Do you remember how it felt voting for the first time?

Denise Lamb: It kind of felt like the first time you could go in a liquor store and buy a beer. It's like a rite of passage. You're finally an adult. Of course, I didn't understand much about politics then, although it was a very politically polarized time in our country's history.

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