Vote 2008: Polling booth numbers could be cause for concern

Kate Nash // Published September 8, 2008 in Santa Fe New Mexican
New Mexico has uniform voting equipment for the Nov. 4 election, as well as sufficient polling locations on state college campuses, a nonpartisan group found in a study released Monday.

That's the good news.

But voters could see problems on Election Day, including long lines, because of an inconsistent approach to poll-booth allocation, the group said.

The group surveyed 29 of the state's 33 county clerks and found no standardized method for allocating poll booths. Only five clerks plan to have written allocation plans for the general election, the group said it found.

Three county clerks couldn't be reached by the group, and a fourth, Rio Arriba, declined to participate, according to the report.

The group says that when counties have written plans in place, including contingency plans in case of unexpectedly high turnout, voters have an opportunity to review them, leading to more transparency.

Santa Fe County is among the counties without a plan. Chief Deputy Clerk for Elections Denise Lamb said the county knows how many voters are registered and how many polling booths it will need. Other counties, however, will send a set amount of booths to all precincts, the report found.

"If we had a written plan, I guess we'd be bound by that and prohibited from increasing the number (of polling booths), so having the flexibility to increase is a good thing," she said.

Nothing in state law requires counties to have the plan, according to FairVote, which advocates state and federal policies that include poll-allocation plans.

"New Mexico does an excellent job of encouraging student participation," report co-author Adam Fogel said in a statement. "However, there is still work to be done to ensure the standardization of booth allocation across precincts. We need more funding for elections and better federal and state guidelines, including minimum standards for election preparedness."

Secretary of State Mary Herrera said that it is each clerk's responsibility to know what their polling booth needs are in their counties.

"I guess I could set a standard. But it hadn't really occurred to me because it hasn't been an issue," she said. "I've heard about every issue from county clerks already and that hasn't been a problem."

Herrera said she would talk with clerks to see if an allocation plan might be needed.

Meanwhile, her office hasn't filled the Bureau of Elections director job since James Noel declined the post last month after originally accepting it. Herrera said Monday she hopes to fill the spot within two weeks.

Office spokesman James Flores emphasized the office is prepared for the election and has an acting bureau director.

"We're ready for the election," he said. "Jim Noel or whoever would have been selected wasn't going to have any play in the 2008 election," Flores said.

The election — which features races for president, all three of the state's Congressional districts and a U.S. Senate seat — could be busier than in years past. In Santa Fe County alone, there have been 2,780 new voter registrations since the June primary election, Lamb said. She noted, however, that many new registrations are voters who are changing their address.

Contact Kate Nash at 986-3036 or knash@sfnew[email protected]. Read her blog, Green Chile Chatter, at www.santafenewmexican.com.