Election challengers can dispute ballots under specific circumstances. (Getty Images)
As early voting continues, political parties still have a chance to be part of the voting process by sending election challengers to watch over polls and make sure everything is happening legally. And the state’s Republican Party is pushing to get their members to volunteer as challengers at voting locations.
What’s an election challenger?
Election challengers are present at polling locations and can challenge a ballot under specific circumstances if they believe it shouldn’t legally be counted. Judges must confirm their claim.
They’re appointed by the county chair of each political party represented on the ballot. Candidates, anyone related to candidates and law enforcement are not allowed to be challengers.
Acting as an election challenger is a way for people to get involved in the election process, Secretary of State spokesperson Alex Curtas said. He added that it serves as a sort of check and balance system on poll workers, the county clerk and the state.
“It’s just a further safeguard on the election, a further way in which people can be involved in the process and hold the process accountable,” Curtas said.
But the scope of what challengers can do is actually pretty narrow, he said. Challengers can only dispute a vote in specific situations, which must also be affirmed by the presiding judge and two election judges. They aren’t allowed to interact with voters or touch ballots at all.
How a vote can be challenged?
Election challengers can dispute a vote for several reasons in the General Election.
If the person trying to vote:
- Isn’t a registered voter
- Was mailed an absentee ballot
- Already cast a ballot
- Is improperly registered
Or, if the mail-in ballot:
- Was illegally opened
- Doesn’t contain a signature
- Was submitted by someone who’s not a New Mexico voter
The Republican Party of New Mexico is trying to recruit people to be poll challengers, including through the party’s newsletter distributed Monday. They’re also promoting a number of ways to report incidents or issues occurring at the polls.
A majority of GOP party members don’t trust elections after former Republican President Donald Trump falsely claimed he won the election in 2020, according to a June story based on repeated polling in Poynter. Election-deniers have already voiced their thoughts in New Mexico during the summer primaries, saying there’s widespread voter fraud — which isn’t actually happening, Curtas said.
The Democratic Party has also been recruiting poll challengers in N.M., though most of their efforts were focused over the summer after the primaries, said Daniel Garcia, spokesperson for the Democratic Party of New Mexico. He said voting is safe and secure in the state.
Curtas said the Republican Party is usually more active in deploying election challengers, which tracks with the party’s stringent views about maintaining election integrity.
“Voter fraud is almost nonexistent, but it makes sense, I think, that you see the Republican Party doing this kind of thing,” he said. “And they have done it for a long time, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with it, as long as the challengers are trained properly and conduct themselves properly.”
The Republican Party of New Mexico did not respond to a request for an interview. We’ll update this story if we hear back.
Election-deniers watching over the polls
With election-denying movements active in New Mexico, it’s possible that people who believe the 2020 election was stolen will act as election challengers.
Curtas said the subtext of this fake election movement could lead to people trying to disrupt the process at the polls. There have been numerous cases in other states of poll watching — something both parties historically do — turning into disruption and violence, with reports of pro-Trump activists even breaching voting systems, according to NewsNation.
“It’s definitely in the background, that idea that bad actors might be trying to use this role of election challenging to sort of nefarious ends,” Curtas said.
Then again, being a poll challenger could educate election-deniers on the voting security that’s upheld in New Mexico, Curtas said.
“People will learn about our elections and learn that they are run with integrity, that voter fraud is not taking place in any kind of systemic mass way, that our tallies are accurate, that all the legal processes and procedures are gone through,” he said. “The best way to do that is to get right in there and see how the process works.”
If challengers go beyond the scope of their rights, the presiding judge at the polling place can remove them. And it’s happened in recent years.
In 2020, four Republican-appointed election challenges were removed from a Doña Ana County voting facility following reports of disruption and intimidation. Curtas said it’s possible something like that could unfold again, but it’s not likely to happen in a widespread manner.
And disruptors will be dealt with legally, he added.
Election administrators are even more vigilant to guard against disruptions now, Curtas said.
“We’re not that concerned about that on a state level because we — the county clerks and presiding judges — are well-trained on all of this,” he said. “And there are laws that govern what you are and are not allowed to do. And anyone who violates those laws will have to face the consequences.”
Garcia said Democrats aren’t anticipating any issues with poll challenging.
“We hope that the Republican Party ensures that poll challengers believe in election security and have a similar mission of making sure that every eligible vote counts,” Garcia said via email.
Other states like Arizona have also seen fringe anti-government groups watching ballot boxes and polls, and some are worried by the conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric the groups promote. Similar to Arizona, ballot boxes are an extension of polling places under New Mexico law, Curtas brought up, so there’s a 100-foot perimeter around the locations with no campaigning or interference allowed.
If there are any instances of voter intimidation or harassment, Curtas said, law enforcement will get involved. Anyone trying to interfere with someone’s right to vote can face up to 10 years in prison.
“Intimidation and harassment will not be tolerated,” he said. “Any disruptions to the voting process will not be tolerated.”
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