Six NM counties approved to offer just one ballot drop box each

Grant County clerk’s waiver request claims boxes ‘susceptible to tampering and vandalism’

By: - September 15, 2022 4:30 am

One of Bernalillo County’s two ballot drop boxes sits inside the Voting Machine Warehouse, Oct. 22, 2021. (Photo by Nash Jones / KUNM)

This story is part of a project called Democracy Day, in which newsrooms across the country are shining a light on threats to democracy.

Six of the most rural New Mexico counties will each have just one ballot drop box available for voters this year because they will not have to follow a state regulation requiring at least two.

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Bureau of Elections Director Mandy Vigil approved on Tuesday requests from six counties to waive the requirement.

County clerks for De Baca, Grant, Harding, Lincoln, Mora, and Union Counties all made reduction requests that were granted by the Secretary of State’s Office.

The boxes make voting more accessible for people in a largely rural state where people often drive for hours to reach a polling place, and few people are able to register online because of the lack of broadband infrastructure, said Hannah Burling, president of the League of Women Voters of New Mexico.

In their requests for waivers, all but one of the six county clerks cited a scarcity of resources as the reason why they cannot make more than one drop box available. Three of them pointed to long drives between their offices and the drop box locations — six hours round trip in one case.

Size of each county with one ballot drop box this year:

  • Lincoln: 4,831 square miles
  • Grant: 3,961 square miles
  • Union: 3,823 square miles
  • De Baca: 2,322 square miles
  • Harding: 2,125 square miles
  • Mora: 1,931 square miles

“Due to the rural nature of our county, we would have to hire an additional person to service the rural locations,” Harding County Clerk CJ Garrison wrote. “Again, NOT good use of resources.”

Almost identical language about drop boxes not being a good use of resources appears in the request from Union County Clerk Brenda Green.

Elsewhere, Lincoln County Clerk Whitney Whittaker and Mora County Clerk Vivian Trujillo each wrote that they do not have enough staff to monitor the boxes.

Grant County Clerk Marisa Castrillo’s request was different, however. She wrote that it would be difficult to install the box because there is no wiring needed for a security camera to monitor it.

“The ballot box will be susceptible to tampering and vandalism,” Castrillo wrote. 

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

However, it is unclear exactly what kind of box Grant County uses or what makes it susceptible to tampering or vandalism. Castrillo was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday.

Burling said she has never heard of any tampering with ballot drop boxes in the state.

“I believe that drop boxes are very, very safe,” Burling said. “There really hasn’t been any proof of ballot tampering all across the U.S. with drop boxes.”

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that in the lead up to the 2020 election and since then, Republican lawmakers in many states have tried to limit or end the use of the boxes because of the potential for tampering or fraud, even though there is no proof that has happened.

New Mexico’s Legislature is controlled by Democrats, and has largely gone in the opposite direction: If not for a last-minute filibuster and a short window of time to debate and pass legislation, earlier this year the state likely would have expanded voter protections in state law including a requirement that every county install at least one of the boxes.

There have been maybe five instances of vandalism of drop boxes around the country, Burling said.

“The league is always in favor of anything that makes voting more accessible for people,” including ballot drop boxes, Burling said.

The election denial movement is playing out in New Mexico with recent events in Otero, Sandoval and Torrance Counties, Burling said.

States target ballot drop boxes in fight over voting rights

For example, two days after former Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin was barred from office for participating in Jan. 6 attack, he appeared on election denier Joe Oltmann’s podcast and said he planned to introduce a local ordinance “against the ballot drop boxes.”

“So that was my next move, was to draft an ordinance against ballot drop boxes in Otero County,” he said.

Burling said any attempts to limit the use of these drop boxes is a form of voter suppression.

“Anything that makes it harder for someone to vote, for a citizen to vote in this country, is a form of voter suppression,” she said.

New Mexico’s voting system is safe and secure, Burling said — and so is the country’s.

“There’s a great deal of process around keeping the vote safe,” she said. “We are very lucky in New Mexico to have a voting system that is generally recognized as one of the top in the nation.”


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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.