Bad Voter Lists May Have Botched New Mexico's Democratic Caucus
Democratic party officials in New Mexico may have used an incomplete list of registered voters on Super Tuesday -- prepared for the secretary of state by a private vendor -- causing nearly 13 percent of Democrats to find they were not on precinct voter rolls when they showed up to choose a presidential nominee.
As a result, the New Mexico Democratic Party is now in the process of validating and counting more than 17,000 provisional ballots. That count will likely determine who won the nation's closest Democratic nominating contest so far in 2008. It is unclear whether the voter list that resulted in so many provisional ballots -- or an updated list -- will be used to verify, validate and count the 17,000 votes.
With 183 out of 184 precincts reporting, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., held a lead of 1,092 votes -- 67,921 votes compared to 66,829 for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., according to the Associated Press. That tally does not include the provisional ballot count.
"The Democratic Party ran that election," said James Flores, spokesman for Secretary of State Mary Herrera, a Democrat. "There is a (voter) list, and it is compiled by ES&S (Election Systems and Software). The Democratic Party requested this list from the secretary of state's office... There could be hundreds of reasons why there are provisional ballots."
Flores is correct. Voters could have gone to the wrong precinct. People could have thought they were registered to vote when they were not. Or -- as some New Mexico election integrity activists think -- the state could have used an inaccurate list prepared by a private vendor.
"I heard the database that the Democrats got was printed on Jan. 24," said Patricia Leahan, director of the Las Vegas Peace and Justice Center, which provides a range of community services and advocates for voting rights in the state's northeastern region. "That means anyone who registered at the last minute, because it takes time to enter all that data, would not have shown up ... On the other hand, there were people at the precincts who said they were registered and lived at the same address for years."
No New Mexico Democratic Party official returned any calls or answered emails on Thursday. The telephone at state party headquarters said that office was closed until Monday, Feb. 11. Flores did not respond to a subsequent email to reply to Leahan's charge that the state's Democratic Party could have received an incomplete voter list.
ES&S officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The problems faced by New Mexico voters on Super Tuesday are potentially bigger than awarding 26 delegates and 12 superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention. Many states now rely on electronic voting systems -- from voter registration databases, to electronic poll books at precincts, to voting and vote-counting machines.
The breakdown in any of these systems, such as possibly flawed voter lists in New Mexico or malfunctioning electronic poll books in Georgia -- which was documented by that state's largest newspaper on Tuesday -- could end up disenfranchising large numbers of voters.
"This is yet another example of the dangers of the privatization of the process," said John Bonifaz, staff counsel for Voter Action, a nonprofit voting rights law firm.
Still, Bonifaz said the New Mexico Democrats provided provisional ballots, meaning it gave voters an opportunity to vote. It remains to be seen what percent of those ballots are validated and what percent are rejected.
"New Mexico has a history of only validating 50 percent of provisional ballots," said Leahan, who drew little comfort in knowing the Democratic Party, not county election officials, would be doing the counting.
There is little doubt the New Mexico Democratic Party mismanaged its presidential caucus. Even Gov. Bill Richardson, a former 2008 presidential candidate, expressed misgivings after Super Tuesday's vote. Unlike a primary, where the state runs the election, a caucus is a private affair funded and run by a political party.
"I am deeply disturbed by the reports that problems and delays at polling locations may have kept people from voting," Richardson said in a prepared statement. "As this very close election shows, every vote is important, and every vote must count. Anything less is unacceptable. In addition the delay in results was extremely disappointing. ... I stand ready to help the party in any way that I can."
Brian Colon, the state Democratic Party chair, told New Mexico reporters that the party did not expect 150,000 voters, a nearly 50 percent increase from 2004. The Democrats consolidated precincts, meaning voters had to travel further and to new locations. And caucus voting was held from noon to 7 p.m., which are unusual poll hours, since many people are used to voting on their way to work. Unlike the Iowa and Nevada caucuses, which are public meetings, New Mexico Democrats voted on paper ballots.
There was additional confusion following Tuesday's vote. In Rio Arriba County, three precinct managers took the ballot boxes home and did not report all the results. That led to speculation by political commentators in the state that those officials were trying to influence the vote count to benefit Hillary Clinton, since one was married to a known Clinton supporter. Colon told reporters on Thursday that the ballot boxes were taken home because of bad winter weather, and the party did not want to post incomplete results for those precincts. The results were phoned in, he said, and party officials examined those ballot boxes and verified the count was accurate.
Late on Thursday, National Public Radio reported that New Mexico's Democratic Party would recount all 2008 caucus ballots. It was impossible to confirm that report, as the party was not answering phone calls or returning emails.