A voting sandwich board outside the Bernalillo County Visitor and Cultural Center polling location in the South Valley on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022 (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)
As polls open up Tuesday for the midterm elections around the nation, the U.S. Department of Justice is deploying officials to keep an eye on polls at specific locations, including in New Mexico. A watchdog program has officials set to keep an eye on Bernalillo and San Juan Counties to make sure nobody’s voting rights are being violated.
There are a total of 64 cities and counties across 24 states that the department’s Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices are watching. Personnel will be in New Mexico and on the lookout for any potential civil rights issues.
Voters can call the Secretary of State’s Office to report voting issues or irregularities at:
A spokesperson from the Department of Justice said specific areas are watched to monitor language and accessibility, as well as potential issues of voter discrimination or intimidation. They said they can’t comment on specifics about why Bernalillo or San Juan Counties are part of the watch list.
Secretary of State spokesperson Alex Curtas said the program often focuses on areas with racial minorities, so it makes sense that Bernalillo and San Juan counties are included, since they have larger Hispanic and Native American populations. Over 50% of people in Bernalillo County are Hispanic, and about 43% of the population in San Juan County is Native American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“No matter where you are, every New Mexico voter is protected under both federal and state laws,” Curtas said.
Which counties are being monitored is up to the Department of Justice, not New Mexico, he added. He said the federal agency told the Secretary of State’s Office about this on Friday, but it’s a welcome initiative in the state.
“The more eyes on our elections, the better,” he said, “as long as people are coming at it in good faith and really trying to make sure that every eligible person gets to cast a ballot freely.”
The federal oversight will help make sure everything is going as it should in the election, Curtas added.
“We want to make sure everything is countable and run with integrity,” he said, “and the best way to do that is to have an open and transparent process.”
Voter intimidation, issues for Native communities
Austin Weahkee is the political director for New Mexico Native Vote. He said one of the big voting challenges for Indigenous people, especially those who live in bordertowns like those within San Juan County, is intimidation. He said Native communities experience a lot of racism in places like Farmington, N.M., including at the polls.
“Everybody who lives there has a story of being spit at or cursed at or ran out of the Walmart in Farmington, specifically for being Native,” said Weahkee (Cochiti, Zuni, Diné).
Intimidation also comes when more liberal Native people vote in conservative areas, he said. For example, Indigenous people were heavily credited with swinging Arizona’s vote to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential elections.
“Those mining towns around Farmington tend to be much more conservative, and the Native people around there tend to be not quite as conservative,” he said. “And that can lead to some political anger.”
Curtas said there haven’t been any indications of voter intimidation so far during early voting, and officials will stay on guard for anything that happens on Tuesday.
Language access can also be a problem. Weahkee said that’s always an issue — “making sure that people who speak Diné language only have access to ballots in their Native language can be really very difficult.”
Voting hotlines in different languages
New Mexico Native Vote and Common Cause have hotlines that can help voters who speak primarily languages other than English with election issues or questions.
- Diné: (505) 587-5758
- Spanish: (888) 839-8682
- Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and Tagalog: (888) 274-8683
- Arabic: (844) 925-5287
New Mexico polling places are required to provide some sort of language assistance. Bernalillo County should have resources for Spanish and Navajo speakers, and San Juan is required to have assistance for those who speak Navajo and Ute.
Weahkee said there are also issues of getting from one polling place to another, especially as Navajo Nation elections are going on at the same time as New Mexico’s. Tribal and state voting locations could be dozens of miles to well over 50 miles apart, he said.
Mario Jimenez is the campaign director of Common Cause, a partner organization of N.M. Native Vote that works to uphold election rights. He said previous voting rights problems have included a lack of polling places, last-minute information changes and incorrect voting location details.
It’s good that attention is being paid to counties that have a lot of Indigenous communities specifically, Jimenez said. “I think it’s wonderful that we are going to see individuals from outside of New Mexico here reviewing our election process,” he said.
Weahkee said this federal oversight will help more people realize the issues that Indigenous communities face that make it harder to cast a ballot or block voting.
“Even if it isn’t the most effective this time around,” he said, “I think it’ll really help to build an understanding nationally of the issues that Native voters go through when trying to cast their ballot.”
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