Congressional oversight panel to investigate ‘vigilante’ audit in Otero County

County commissioner defends audit while also facing federal charges for role in Jan. 6 insurrection

By: - March 18, 2022 6:48 am

Votes counted by staff at the Maricopa County Elections Department office on Nov. 5, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Courtney Pedroza / Getty Images)

Canvassers have been knocking on doors in Otero County as part of what they say is an attempt to verify voter rolls and the results of the 2020 election. 

On Thursday, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform announced a probe of possible voter intimidation in the southeast New Mexico county as part of a larger investigation into the rise of partisan “audits” nationwide.

In a letter to EchoMail, the company hired by the Otero County Commission to guide the audit, Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) are asking for all communication materials. They are also seeking the canvass questionnaire, payment and funding information, a list of funders, subcontract agreements, and details about who has interest in and control of the company. 

Maloney and Raskin head up the oversight committee and the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, respectively. They write to EchoMail CEO Shiva Ayyadurai that the door-to-door audit could be a violation of federal law under the Voting Rights Act, which spells out that no one can intimidate, threaten or coerce anyone for voting or trying to vote. 

“Your company’s proven lack of knowledge about the details of election administration, your personal advocacy of election conspiracy theories, and your partnership with a conspiracist volunteer group to canvass voters raise serious concerns that your actions will damage election integrity in Otero County and beyond,” the congressional leaders write, “including by intimidating voters in violation of federal law.” 

Not the first time:

The Arizona Mirror reported in October that EchoMail CEO Ayyadurai demonstrated little knowledge of elections policies and procedures as he testified about his findings in Maricopa County before the state’s Senate. The Maricopa County Elections Department later released a report taking down EchoMail’s claims.

By early March, the “vigilante” audit in New Mexico brought on a deluge of complaints from people being canvassed, said Secretary of State’s Maggie Toulouse Oliver. Along with the Attorney General Hector Balderas, her office released a risk advisory for voters on March 2. 

N.M. election administrators have verifications and audit procedures in place to ensure the accuracy of all elections, Toulouse Oliver and Balderas pointed out in their advisory, and the state uses only paper ballots — voting machines are not connected to the internet.

The state’s officials alerted voters that: 

  • Your ballot is secret 
  • You don’t ever have to provide info about who you voted for
  • You don’t have to participate in the Otero County audit

The Secretary of State’s Office released a statement to Source NM on Thursday saying she appreciates that Congress is treating the audit “with the seriousness it deserves.” Balderas also said Thursday that he welcomes the congressional review, emphasizing that “election security is a priority.” 

The 60 canvassers knocking on doors earlier this month had not been given background checks, the N.M. officials said. The canvassing campaign is being carried out by a conspiracy group called the New Mexico Audit Force, which is not a legally incorporated entity or overseen by any government agency, according to the congressional letter.

The representatives write that NM Audit Force is loosely organized via Telegram, a messaging app with privacy features that could make oversight by a government entity difficult. The group is led by people promoting what’s become known as The Big Lie — that ex-President Donald Trump really won the 2020 election. He didn’t.

Trump was victorious in Otero County, though, and by a significant margin, too. So questions have been raised about why the County Commission would spend $50,000 on this door-to-door operation. 

State Auditor Brian Colón’s office investigated whether that’s an appropriate use of public money and whether it was legal to create the contract without letting other companies bid on it first. In an initial letter to the Otero County commissioners issued Monday, Colón noted possible legal violations, including an inability to ensure compliance with the contract.

Colón said in a written statement to Source NM that he applauds the congressional committee for its investigation into the audit, and he’s ready to cooperate and assist. “The Otero County Commission appears to have entered a contract that is a waste of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “They did so in a manner that may have been an abuse of power, and despite warnings of their own counsel.” 

Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin defended the $50,000 expenditure, telling KUNM Reporter Alice Fordham that it’s worth it, because the audit will create a “blueprint for other counties to be able to follow.” 

Griffin was in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021, and promised more violence in a video posted to social media that day, saying “there’s gonna be blood running out of that building,” according to the Department of Justice. He is facing federal charges and his one-day bench trial is scheduled for next week.

Reps. Maloney and Raskin also sent a second letter to the DOJ calling for an urgent review of potential civil rights violations stemming from the audit. 

Back in May, the Civil Rights Division of the department warned the Arizona Senate that a similar door-to-door plan for Maricopa County could result in voter intimidation and a violation of the federal voting rights law. At the time, the division said such efforts nationally can target minority voters. The same could be true in Otero County, the representatives point out, where the population is nearly 40% Hispanic and 8% Native American, according to census numbers.

As Erin and David Clements presented the New Mexico Audit Force plan to the County Commission on Jan. 13, they said canvassers would not indicate that they represent the county as they question voters. Though a video posted to TikTok filmed as someone was being canvassed seemed to indicate otherwise, according to the Alamogordo Daily News.

Erin Clements spoke against a New Mexico Senate bill that aimed to expand voting rights during the recent legislative session. Both Erin and David Clements were mentioned several times during hours of public comment decrying the legislation. 

The Otero County clerk told the Alamogordo paper she didn’t know where the canvassers got a list of voters in the area. The Secretary of State’s Office on Thursday echoed that point.

“Our office continues to have questions and concerns about where the NM Audit Force obtained the data they are using for their so-called ‘audit,’” spokesperson Alex Curtas said, “as they did not request and receive it from us, and illegally obtaining such data is a felony in New Mexico.” 

Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-N.M.), whose district includes Otero County, did not respond to requests for comment about the congressional investigation before this article was published on Thursday, March 17. We’ll update this story if we hear back.

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Marisa Demarco
Marisa Demarco

Marisa Demarco is an Albuquerque-based journalist and lifelong New Mexican whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent almost two decades as a reporter, producer and newsroom leader, co-founding the New Mexico Compass, and editing and writing for the Weekly Alibi, the Albuquerque Tribune and UNM's Daily Lobo. She began a career in radio full-time at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health and criminal legal reform for much of the last seven years. During the pandemic, she was also the executive producer for “Your NM Gov” and “No More Normal,” shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice.