ALBUQUERQUE – Deep-seated conspiracy theories about the security of voting machines erupted into heated, angry and at times threatening outbursts Friday as New Mexico counties decided whether to certify results from their recent primary, underscoring the depths of an election crisis that officials fear is foreshadowing darker times ahead for the nation’s democracy.
In one politically conservative county, angry residents greeted their three commissioners with screams and vitriol as they met to consider certification. As the visibly frustrated Torrance County commissioners indicated they were going to vote to certify their election, the audience shouted “Shame on you,” “cowards and traitors,” and “Who elected you?”
The commissioners pleaded with the audience for patience and said concerns about alleged election vulnerabilities eventually would be addressed.
“The time and place to fight this battle is not by canvassing this election,” Chairman Ryan Schwebach told the crowd in Torrance County.
In another county, a commission chairman pounded a gavel frantically and ordered law enforcement to clear livid protesters from the room. The 4-1 vote to certify the election by a Republican-dominated commission in Sandoval County was nearly drowned out by jeers of opposition in a divided audience.
Commissioner Jay Block – a failed Republican primary candidate for governor in the June 7 vote – noted his opposition to hoots of approval and applause.
“It is imperative that we are presented with a complete set of facts” about the election, Block said.
There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting equipment that could have affected the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, and no such fraud has surfaced in this year’s midterms. To underscore the accuracy of election results, another Sandoval County commissioner read to the audience the findings of an audit that compared the votes recorded by the county’s tabulating machines in 2020 with a sampling of the actual paper ballots. The difference was just a fraction of 1% in the races for president, U.S. Senate and other offices – “almost insignificant,” Republican commissioner David Heil said.
Certifying elections by typically under-the-radar local commissions has been a routine ministerial task for decades that has become politicized ever since former President Donald Trump sought to undermine the process after his loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
A rural, heavily Republican county in New Mexico – Otero County – thrust the issue into the spotlight this week when its commission said it would not certify the local results from the June 7 primary because of concerns over Dominion voting systems, even though there was no evidence of problems.
That came despite the county elections clerk saying the primary voting had been safe and secure.
Otero County Clerk Robyn Holmes, a Republican in her fourth term as the county’s lead elections administrator, told The Associated Press that the June 7 election was conducted without problems. Machine tallies at 16 voting centers each matched the number of ballots that were handed out.
“The primary went off without a hitch,” she said. “It was a great election.”
The controversy that began in Otero County boiled over on Friday as commissions in the last of the state’s 33 counties were meeting to decide whether to certify results.
The passionate showdown provided a stark example of the chaos that election experts have warned about as those who promote the lie that Trump was cheated out of re-election seek to populate election offices across the country and the usually low-profile boards that certify the results.
The New Mexico Supreme Court earlier this week ordered Otero County to sign off on the election results after the Democratic secretary of state asked it to intervene. The state attorney general, also a Democrat, then threatened more legal action if the Republican-dominated commission did not comply with the law.
That could include charging commissioners with possible violations of state election and government ethics laws, which can be felonies if the action is willful and result in removal from office.
At least one of the three Otero County commissioners was unfazed. Commissioner Couy Griffin told CNN that he was not planning to vote for certification.
“Why have a commission if we just get overridden by the court system?” he said.
It was not immediately clear what would happen next if Otero refused to certify its results.
New Mexico’s primary ballot included races at all levels – including Congress, governor, attorney general and a long list of local offices. Those races won’t be official until all counties are certified, which leaves candidates and their campaigns in limbo.
The developments can be traced to far-right conspiracy theories over voting machines that have spread across the country over the past two years. Various Trump allies have claimed that Dominion voting systems had somehow been manipulated as part of an elaborate scheme to steal the election, which Biden won.
Dominion has filed several defamation lawsuits, including against Fox News, and in a statement earlier this week said the action by the Otero County commissioners was “yet another example of how lies about Dominion have damaged our company and diminished the public’s faith in elections.”
Election officials outside New Mexico are taking notice. The Secretary of State’s Office said Friday it has been flooded with calls from officials concerned that certification controversies will become a new front in the attacks on democratic norms and could affect future elections, especially in 2024.
As of Friday afternoon, Otero County was the only one out of the state's 33 counties yet to certify their results.
Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque and is the state’s most populous, unanimously certified its results earlier Friday. Commissioners agreed they saw no evidence of problems during the primary, but Commissioner Walt Benson acknowledged that a lot of people just don’t trust the system.
In Otero County, two of the three commissioners need to vote in favor of the certification.
Griffin was sentenced Friday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to 14 days behind bars, which he has already served. He had been convicted of entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds – though not the building – during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
State election officials advised the sentencing judge of Griffin’s refusal to certify primary election results in New Mexico.
Associated Press writers Christina Almeida Cassidy in Atlanta, Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, and Terry Tang in Phoenix contributed to this report.