Legislators learn of threats against volunteers on Election Night
Gov. Susana Martinez received plaudits for delivering pizza and encouragement to voters who stood in long lines on Election Night in Rio Rancho.
But in the border town of Chaparral, nonpartisan volunteers who offered stranded voters water, food and chairs were threatened with arrest.
Eight uniformed officers of the Otero County Sheriff’s Office put up yellow crime-scene tape around the Chaparral polling place. Then they intimidated volunteers whose only mission was to make sure voters could stick it out long enough to exercise their right to cast a ballot, said Mariaelena Johnson of the community group New Mexico Café.
Johnson turned into the star witness Saturday during a legislative hearing on Election Night problems in Sandoval and Otero counties.
Almost nobody from Sandoval, home of the growing city of Rio Rancho, showed up. But Johnson and a dozen more people from southern New Mexico told of a horror show in Chaparral.
Chaparral is in two counties, Dona Ana and Otero. It also is a growing community with about 15,000 people, 85 percent of whom are Hispanic.
The polling place in the Otero section of Chaparral became a place of confrontation on Election Day.
“The voting judge called the police on us,” Johnson told the committee.
Actually, it was the Otero sheriff that was summoned by election judge Connie Mayes.
Robyn Holmes, who was the Otero County clerk during the election, told a different story.
Reached by telephone at her home, Holmes said community volunteers outside the Chaparral precinct were loud and unruly, necessitating a sheriff’s presence to keep the peace.
“You’ve got to have some kind of crowd control,” Holmes said.
On Election Night, Holmes was 85 miles from Chaparral in the Otero County seat of Alamogordo. She said she knew of disruptive forces at the polling place based on what two sheriff’s deputies and her precinct workers told her.
None of Holmes’ claims are true, Johnson said.
Johnson said she called Holmes early on Election Day when lines already were long and no translators were at the Chaparral precinct. Johnson said Holmes sent two people to serve as translators, but they stayed only two hours, leaving even before the nighttime rush as people got off work and went to vote.
Johnson and other community organizers stood by to help. Fluent in Spanish, they could serve as translators if voters requested their help. But simply by being outside the precinct, they rankled election judge Mayes, Johnson said.
Johnson said the only chanting that occurred was well after sheriff’s deputies arrived. By that time, Johnson’s parents, 88 and 89 years old, were still standing in line to vote.
Children were assigned to bring water to waiting voters. This was a strategy to keep deputies at bay, Johnson said. Her group figured that nobody from the sheriff’s office would arrest a child, but they might lock up adults who tried to provide water or food to voters standing in line.
“The police were very clear that they would arrest us — arrest me,” Johnson said.
Volunteers said they, like the Republican governor 300 miles upstate, were simply trying to help.
“I didn’t care who people voted for. I just wanted them to be able to vote,” Johnson said.
Holmes said the large turnout in Chaparral blindsided her and her staff.
“We weren’t prepared,” she said.
Typically about 250 people vote in the Chaparral precinct, but twice as many showed up in November, she said. The last person in line in Chaparral finally voted at 10:45 p.m.
Legislators had heard bits and pieces about the Chaparral debacle before the hearing. The details jarred them.
State Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said he was troubled that the governor could help voters through a tough circumstance but others doing the same were harassed.
For the people in Chaparral to be “taped off and chased away” was a double standard that cannot be tolerated, Maestas said.
Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces, co-chaired the legislative hearing. She said the Chaparral case was a blot on the election.
Garcia, right, also said she wanted to hear from the secretary of state on how to solve staffing and equipment problems at polling places.
Rep. Nate Cote, D-Organ, said he knew the Otero County clerk had received numerous complaints about the lines and lack of translators at the Chaparral precinct throughout Election Day. Cote said he called her too, only to get a surprising response.
“She said she had not heard of any problems in Chaparral. That’s impossible,” said Cote, below.
For her part, Holmes, a Republican, said she looked at the Chaparral setup soon after the election to see what could be done better. She no longer is the clerk because of term limits, but she remains employed in the office as a deputy.
One idea is to divide that polling site into two precincts to better handle voter turnout.
Cote offered a bill to allow Chaparral residents to cross the short distance into Dona Ana County and vote early at a center there. But the House Voters and Elections Committee found too many logistical problems with his bill to advance it.
For Johnson, the confrontation in Chaparral was generational. She said the election judge and poll workers were all Caucasian and not attuned to helping large numbers of Hispanic people who arrived to exercise their right to vote.