Otero County votes 2-1 to approve primary results

Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin was the lone no vote, after he avoided jail time for his role in the Capitol riot at a federal sentencing hearing a few hours earlier

By: - June 17, 2022 6:01 pm

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 6: Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Trump supporters gathered in the nation’s capital to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. A pro-Trump mob later stormed the Capitol, breaking windows and clashing with police officers. Five people died as a result. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin avoided jail time for participating in the Capitol riot at his federal sentencing today, and hours later voted to defy a New Mexico Supreme Court order directing the Otero County Commission to approve the vote count from the June 7 primary. 

Griffin was the lone no vote on the council and the motion to approve the results passed 2-1. 

The commission had voted Monday not to approve the results of the primary vote, a pro-forma motion that has not historically been a source of controversy. New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver promptly filed a lawsuit asking the state Supreme Court to order the commission to approve the results.

Couy Griffin sentenced to time served, meaning no more jail time

Separately, the Torrance County commission voted to approve the primary results Friday after voting to delay certification of the results Monday. The Secretary of State’s lawsuit cited Torrance County’s delay of the certification as an example of the dangerous influence of the Otero County Commission’s actions. 

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court issued a decision directing the Otero County Commission to meet again by June 17 to certify the primary results. The commission scheduled an emergency meeting for Friday afternoon following the court’s order. During Monday’s meeting, all three commissioners said they wouldn’t be available again in time to certify the votes by Friday.

My vote to remain a no isn’t based on any evidence, it isn’t based on any facts. It’s only based on my own gut feeling, my own intuition, and that’s all I need.

– Couy Griffin said shortly after he was sentenced for his role in the Jan. 6 Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The Secretary of State’s office submitted a criminal referral to the New Mexico Attorney General’s office Thursday, alleging that the Otero County Commission was guilty of multiple fourth-degree felonies. 

The referral alleged members of the commission had broken the law when they refused to certify the vote count Monday, and was guilty of multiple other criminal violations during a meeting last week when they voted to ignore election rules and perform an unauthorized hand count of primary ballots. The criminal referral also accused them of breaking the law at that meeting by voting to remove voting machines and ballot drop boxes.

Griffin attended today’s meeting by phone, as he was in Washington, D.C. for sentencing in a federal case stemming from his participation in the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Griffin was earlier found guilty of entering and remaining in a restricted area, but he was acquitted of a charge of disorderly and disruptive conduct.

Judge Trevor McFadden, a Trump appointee and member of the right-wing Federalist Society, sentenced Griffin to 14-days in jail, but since he already spent 20 days in jail during pretrial detention, he was given time served and will not have to return to jail. 

Griffin was also sentenced to 60 hours of community service, one year of probation and a $3,000 fine. He has leveraged his participation in the riot to raise more than $50,000 online from supporters of the insurrection. 

During the Otero County commission meeting, Griffin expressed defiance toward state authorities and the New Mexico Supreme Court. 

“Them saying they would press felony charges against us if we don’t certify the election, what kind of heresy is that?” Griffin said. “We need to wake up to the overreach of the state government.”

During the meeting, Griffin said his no vote was not based on any specific concerns about the accuracy of the vote count. 

“My vote to remain a no isn’t based on any evidence, it isn’t based on any facts. It’s only based on my own gut feeling, my own intuition, and that’s all I need,” he said.

Griffin received a chorus of audible cheers from the meeting’s audience when he announced he would vote no on certifying the results. 

Commissioner Vickie Marquardt tearfully thanked the audience for their support, and said she was voting to certify the results because she didn’t want to be removed from office for criminal conduct. 

“If we get removed from office, nobody’s going to be here fighting for the ranchers. And that’s where our fight should be is helping them,” she said. “I don’t want to let anybody down by voting to certify this, but we don’t have a choice.”

Commissioner Gerald Matherly said he voted to approve the results because he didn’t want to disenfranchise voters or candidates. 

“As of right now we have no proof of black-and-white fact that anything went wrong,” he said. “All these people that worked on that election that were elected, the thousands and thousands of dollars that they all spent, the miles they walked, knocking on doors, would all be for nothing, and I can’t do that to those people.” 

In a statement, Toulouse Oliver said she was “relieved” by the outcome of the commission’s vote. 

“The voters of Otero County and the candidates who duly won their primaries can now rest assured that their voices have been heard and the General Election can proceed as planned,” she said. “We note that the Commission admitted that they did not have any facts to support not certifying the election results. It’s unfortunate that we had to take action to make sure Otero County voters were not disenfranchised.”

John Block, who won this month’s Republican primary in Otero County for District 51 State Representative, said he was confident in the election results but still believes the commission did the right thing in refusing to certify the vote Monday. 

“I thank them for the hard stance they had in the last meeting,” Block said in an interview. “I’m disappointed that it had to come to this with the governor and the attorney general and the secretary of state pretty much forcing them to certify an election that they did not have 100 percent confidence in.”

Block said he believed this year’s election was “not as fraudulent as previous elections,” thanks to media attention brought on by the rogue audit of Otero County. 

“I believe that that pressure that we put on them from the public is another factor that let us have a lot more confidence in this primary election,” Block said. 

Otero County’s election audit performed earlier this year is the subject of state and federal investigations seeking to determine whether auditors engaged in voter intimidation or misused public funds.  

Earlier Friday, the Torrance County Commission voted to approve the results of the primary vote in that county, after voting Monday to delay the decision over vague concerns about voting machines. Friday’s meeting was raucous and chaotic, with residents screaming over the commissioners and demanding a public comment period before the vote. 

Torrance County Commissioner Ryan Schwebach asked for sheriff’s deputies to remove unruly residents from the room, but the deputies did not do so. Schwebach then allowed residents to give public comments and later apologized for asking the deputies to remove them. 

Commenters at the meeting were uniformly opposed to certifying the vote, with many airing conspiracy theories related to voting machines and election fraud.

One commenter referred to the New Mexico Supreme Court as “a bunch of demons in black robes in Santa Fe” and another falsely claimed that voting machines are “completely illegal.” In fact, federal law requires all polling places to have at least one voting machine so that blind and disabled voters can still cast their votes. 

After listening to public comment, the Torrance County Commission voted 3-0 to approve the vote count. 

“We’re not saying we’re ignoring it. We’re not saying we’re rubber-stamping it,” Schewabach told the crowd. “We’re aware of the situation. We’re aware of the concerns. And we’re prepared to fight it, to hopefully win the battle.”

In an interview, Schwebach said he shares the concerns of residents who spoke at the meeting. 

“There’s a lot of little things within the system that trouble me. But I’ll sit here and tell you, I’ve only been looking into this for the last four weeks. I don’t have all the answers yet,” he said. “This commission’s going to be looking into it. There’s a lot of questionable things, and I really don’t want to speak on it because I don’t fully understand it.”

Schwebach denied the commission’s concern with voting machines had anything to do with baseless conspiracy theories spread by former President Donald Trump, who sought to undermine public confidence in the election system in order to keep himself in office after losing the 2020 election. 

“This has absolutely nothing to do with what happened in 2020,” Schwebach said. “Just because I happen to be Republican, doesn’t mean that this is what’s driving me.”

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Andrew Beale
Andrew Beale

Andrew Beale has 15 years of reporting experience, starting with the UNM Daily Lobo. He's reported for national and international publications including the New York Times, Vice and al-Jazeera from locations as far-flung as Portland and Palestine. He has a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and he resides in Southern California.

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