Glen Duggins

The new members of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District Board were sworn in Monday, including Socorro’s representative Glen Duggins. The conservancy district board decided to count all ballots cast in the election, despite a request from a candidate for one of the Bernalillo County seats to reject the early ballots cast in the race for Position No. 4.

The board delayed certifying election results after a candidate for Position No. 4, Simon Haynes, came before the board with several concerns about the integrity of the election. The board’s counsel took two weeks to investigate those concerns.

One of Haynes concerns was that he was told he could use his nickname Scooter on the ballot. While his legal name was on every ballot, his nickname was not included on the early voting ballots until June 5, after Haynes notified the election officials that his nickname wasn’t on the ballot.

Board attorney Lorna Wiggins presented the results of that investigation to the board on Friday. Wiggins recommended rejecting the ballots cast in early voting for the race for position No. 4. Rejecting the ballots would not have changed the winner of the race, incumbent Joaquin Baca. It would have changed the vote tally from 576 votes for Haynes and 1,609 votes for Baca to 350 votes for Haynes and 871 votes for Baca.

Wiggins based her recommendation on a New Mexico Supreme Court case decided in 2001, Gunaji v. Macias, where 66 voters in Dona Ana County were given ballots with entirely incorrect candidate names for two races. The court decided the ballots from that precinct should be rejected, which left the results of the affected elections unchanged.

Haynes thanked the board for seriously investigating his concerns and asked them to follow Wiggins’ recommendation.

Two members of the public spoke at the meeting and asked the board not to reject the early ballots.

Former New Mexico Senator Dede Feldman asked the board not to reject the early ballots, because she believes it would discourage voter participation in the future in an election that already has low turnout and does not believe her vote should be disqualified for an error made by the elections vendor. Feldman said rejecting the ballots would be “rewriting history.”
“We see this going on in the rest of the country or attempts made to have this happen in the rest of the country and I urge you not to follow that path,” said Feldman.

Attorney Ray Vargas also asked the board not to reject any ballots, since Haynes’ legal name was on all of the ballots. Vargas pointed out that there were no voters coming before the board saying they voted for the wrong candidate.

“I’m here to speak against the recommendation to throw out 964 qualified votes. To do so would deny 964 people their constitutional right to cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice,” said Vargas.

Board member Barbara Baca read a letter from Common Cause which also encouraged the board to count all ballots cast in the election, to avoid disenfranchising voters without notice and to avoid undermining public confidence in elections.

Joaquin Baca spoke strongly against rejecting the ballots. Baca rcused himself from the vote to certify the election results for his own race.

“Those who truly care about our democracy should work to improve access so more people can vote in our elections, not the other way around,” said Baca.

Outgoing Socorro County director Valerie Moore said the mistake on the ballots was terrible and not fair to Haynes, but “I will not be a part of disenfranchising voters.”
Wiggins also provided the board with recommendations based on Haynes’ other concerns.

She recommended in future elections the board makes clear to all candidates whether they are welcome to gather at the MRGCD offices on election night to prevent any misunderstanding. Haynes believed it was unfair that Baca was at the MRGCD office on election night, and believed this gave Baca early access to election results. Wiggins’ investigation found that Baca was never in the room where ballots were counted and his presence had no bearing on the outcome of the election. Baca was at the office as any member of the public was allowed to be, said Wiggins.

Wiggins investigated an allegation that a qualified elector had been turned away from the polls. The person in question was told he was not on the list of voters and that the information he shared was being confirmed by headquarters. He left without hearing anything back. Wiggins was unable to confirm a claim that a poll worker said they would call the person once they confirmed information. The property that is within the conservancy district is held in a trust, not in the individual’s name. Only someone who is a trustee could vote on behalf of the trust, said Wiggins. MRGCD practice is to have poll workers give a provisional ballot to someone who wants to vote on behalf of a trust so that any questions can be determined. Wiggins was unable to determine if a provisional ballot was offered. There was no evidence that multiple qualified electors were denied the right to vote, said Wiggins.

At the previous meeting, Haynes also questioned why the MRGCD board is responsible for canvassing its own elections. Wiggins said she determined that it is a historical practice that board members act as canvassing board, regardless of if the board member is a candidate in the election. She recommended current board members in the contested election recuse themselves as canvasing members, which they did.

How the MRGCD elections are run will change in 2022, because of a state law that was passed in 2018, which should resolve this systemic issue, said Wiggins. The Local Election Act gave conservancy districts until July 2022 to transition to having their elections run by the county clerk’s office instead of the conservancy board. This means by 2022, the board will no longer act as a canvassing board for its own elections.

The official election results are:
Bernalillo County
Position No. 3
Karen Dunning 1,585 votes
Julia L. Maccini 603 votes
Position No. 4
Simon (Scooter) Haynes 576 votes
Joaquin Baca 1,609 votes
Socorro County
Position No. 6
Steven Sichler 211 votes
Glen Duggins 242 votes
Sandoval County
Position No. 7
Michael T. Sandoval 182 votes.
Total votes: 5,008

Cathy Cook, El Defensor Chieftain