A lack of ballot drop boxes adds another barrier to Native voting access

New Mexico will not enforce a new rule requiring drop boxes in every county this year

By: - Thursday October 28, 2021 6:00 am

A lack of ballot drop boxes adds another barrier to Native voting access

New Mexico will not enforce a new rule requiring drop boxes in every county this year

By: - 6:00 am

One of eight ballot drop boxes in Santa Fe County can be found on the west side of the Santa Fe County Clerk’s Office. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

One of eight ballot drop boxes in Santa Fe County can be found on the west side of the Santa Fe County Clerk’s Office. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Access to the ballot is already difficult for Native communities in New Mexico, and this problem is only compounded by the pandemic and ongoing state problems that undermine efforts to offer more COVID-safe ways to vote.

This year was supposed to be the first in New Mexico when there would be at least two ballot drop boxes — more depending on population — permanently bolted to the ground in every county. But nearly half of all counties in New Mexico will not have enough of the boxes, and most of those counties also don’t have permission to skip providing them, KUNM reports.

The drop boxes allow voters to submit their ballots without having to go inside a polling place or wait in line near other people. They are also useful if mail pickup is sparse in rural and tribal regions.

80% of the people living in McKinley County are Native American

42% of the people living in San Juan County are Native American

— U.S. Census Bureau, 2019 stats

That includes San Juan County, which is supposed to have three drop boxes but has zero, according to New Mexico Secretary of State data. Nearby McKinley County has three, one more than the requirement under the rule. Navajo Nation land is in those two counties.

Common Cause New Mexico found that Native voter participation decreased during the 2020 primary compared with 2016, while statewide voter turnout increased. One voting precinct serving Native people in San Juan County saw a 20% drop in voter turnout.

The Alamo Chapter of the Navajo Nation had a high COVID positivity rate just before the general election, said Austin Weahkee (Cochiti), political director for NM Native Vote and an organizer for its sister organization, the Native American Voters Alliance (NAVA) Education Project.

During election season, the NAVA Education Project works on getting Indigenous people registered to vote, ensuring voting access for the urban Native population and getting voting information out to tribal communities.

People who were positive for COVID were being told to wait until Election Day to go vote, Weahkee said. “We don’t know where that information came from.”

There were a lot of COVID-positive people lined up to vote, he said, coughing out in the cold. “On Election Day, we got this wave of panicked calls from our canvassers saying, ‘I don’t know what’s happening, but Alamo is super backed up.’ “

If Election Day is going to create a huge line and a public health problem, that’s the kind of place that needs a ballot drop box, Weahkee said, “especially if they’re going to be putting that many of their citizens at risk, just to go vote. They absolutely have to have other alternatives and better alternatives leading up to Election Day to make sure that they can get there.” 

The drop boxes are one way to ensure communities stay safe from COVID while participating in elections, Weahkee said.

Weahkee said if correctly deployed and well-serviced, a drop box can be run 24 hours a day, which offers people who work nontraditional hours an easier opportunity to vote. The state rule only requires county clerks to make the drop boxes operational 24 hours a day “whenever possible.”

In Acoma Pueblo, Weahkee said, the drop box was 24 hours because it was at a police substation, which was helpful. “Put it at the fire department, the police substation,” he said, places that might be staffed around the clock but where there might be workers might also have some downtime in the off hours.

Drop boxes can also be easier to staff than an early voting location, Weahkee said, because “you can do it through other existing programs, so you don’t necessarily have to hire an additional poll watcher.”

Many Native families live with people who are highly at risk, he said, which forces voters to weigh their family’s health against their interest in making their voices heard.

“If you’re already on the fence, that’s a really easy decision to make,” Weahkee said. “So, ballot drop boxes have presented a really good opportunity to not put your family’s health at risk in order to go vote.”

San Juan County officials did not respond to requests for drop boxes in 2020, Weahkee said. They needed more drop boxes in Acoma Pueblo, and were trying to get San Juan County officials to install them for the entirety of the general election that year. It became a major issue of simply getting through to someone who could do something about it.

“We must have called them I think, probably in excess of like, 45 times from Aug. 1 of 2020 to November of 2020, and we never got anybody but a secretary,” Weahkee said. “I think we got them twice, and they put us on hold, and then eventually the call was dropped.”

San Juan County Clerk Tanya Shelby’s voicemail was full on Wednesday and she did not return an email seeking comment for this story.

NAVA also ran into funding issues where they needed money from the Secretary of State’s Office or the state Senate but it hadn’t been allocated beforehand, Weahkee said.

“But again, neither of them are really to blame on that, because who foresaw the pandemic coming in January of 2020?” Weahkee said.

Weahkee said his organization makes resources available for ballot drop boxes. So if there is a community that does not have funding for one, they could work with the Secretary of State’s Office and the local county clerk to make it happen.

“We just need to have the ask and have the affirmation of like, ‘Here’s where we’re going to put it. And here’s how we’re going to staff it,’ Then we’re happy to fund it,” Weahkee said. “That is absolutely something that us as an organization is willing to do, you know, leading up to any election, but especially, you know, primary and general state and federal elections.”

Counties with no drop boxes

Chaves County has no drop boxes, according to the Secretary of State data. Chaves County Clerk Cindy Fuller said Wednesday that her office has mailed out 158 absentee ballots. 

Most of those are going to the county’s two “mail-only” precincts, where the office automatically mails every voter a ballot unless they opt out. There are 63 total precincts in the county, Fuller said.

“We have a drive-up window here in our office that, ever since COVID started, we’ve been utilizing, and it has been an amazing tool for those that don’t want to come inside the building,” Fuller said. She said voters can also drop their absentee ballots in any regular Post Office box, without having to pay for postage, and it will be delivered to her office.

Curry County has no drop boxes, according to the Secretary of State data. Curry County Clerk Annie Hogland said voters can still vote by mail or drop off their ballots at the County Clerk’s Office.

“We have COVID-safe practices in place here in our office,” Hogland said. “It’s pretty much still nearly contactless. We have the glass shields in between us. Masks are available and other tools that we use to keep everybody — the public and our staff — safe.”

Eddy County has no drop boxes, according to the Secretary of State data. Eddy County Chief Deputy Clerk Cara Cooke said Wednesday they are still mailing out absentee ballots.

“They can bring those by our office or to the early voting locations,” Cooke said. “They can also drop them off at a polling location on Election Day. And if they don’t feel comfortable getting out of their car, they can always call and we can meet them outside to get their absentee ballot.”

Lea County has no drop boxes, according to the Secretary of State data. Lea County Clerk Keith Manes said Wednesday fewer than 50 absentee ballots have been mailed out so far.

While Santa Fe County has eight ballot drop boxes, more than half of New Mexico counties don’t have enough given their populations, according to state rules. Six counties have none. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

“That’s all we have requests for,” Manes said.

The last day that the County Clerk’s Office can mail out absentee ballots is this Friday, Manes said.

“So if they want to not go to the polling place, they have to have an application back to us by Friday, so we can mail a ballot,” Manes said. That ballot must be returned to the County Clerk’s Office or one of the polling location on election night by 7 p.m., he said.

“The turnout has been awful,” Manes said. Only four people showed up for early voting at the local events center on Saturday, and at the Lee County Annex, there were zero, he said.

“All day. That’s nine hours of paying people to man those polls, and nobody shows up,” Manes said. “The turnout has been horrible. We have a lot of races, but most of them are not contested.”

De Baca and San Juan Counties also don’t have drop boxes, according to the Secretary of State.

Voting rights always in jeopardy

Every election season, 2020 included, Native people face the prospect of losing their rights to vote, Weahkee said.

“Every single election could mean the end of a polling location,” he said. “It could mean the end of money and an ear for their legislator, and that respect from their legislator.”

He points to New Mexico Senate District 30, represented by Republican Sen. Joshua A. Sanchez, and Congressional District 2, represented by Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell as examples of “where all of a sudden, they have somebody who they don’t feel comfortable going to to get advocacy.”

That kind of connection and attention from an elected official in a rural region is necessary for funding, direct aid, hospital resources, media coverage — all crucial during a pandemic, Weahkee pointed out.

For example, To’hajiilee, a satellite chapter of the Navajo Nation west of Albuquerque, had an aging water system that continually broke and produced undrinkable water up until November 2020, according to the Navajo Times. That’s because they didn’t have a large platform for advocacy, Weahkee said.

“It kind of just went under the radar,” he said, “until they had to spend a huge amount of money out of pocket to pay a developer to put in a single pipe connector to connect them to clean running water during a pandemic.”

Weahkee said the 2020 election season was a perfect example of the need to get Native people involved in elections, particularly in neighboring Arizona, where the Native vote proved decisive in Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump.

Given the disease’s disproportionate impact on Indigenous people, along with existing systemic health inequities like food and health care deserts, many Native communities’ decided to close their borders in order to keep their members safe from COVID.

“That led to a larger necessity to keep our community safe, and people not being allowed to leave and go to different polling sites and all that other kind of stuff,” he said. “We just lost access.”

Acoma Pueblo during the 2020 primary election ran into legal barriers and didn’t have a polling location at all because their borders were closed, Weahkee said. Lawmakers temporarily fixed that during the special session before the general election, with input from Common Cause.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.