Rural New Mexico county seeks removal of elections clerk

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A county commission in rural New Mexico that has been roiled by election conspiracies is trying to oust its election director just five weeks before Election Day for improperly certifying ballot-counting equipment.

Torrance County is repeating the certification of its vote-counting machines for the Nov. 8 general election based on revelations that County Clerk Yvonne Otero pre-signed certification forms before testing and did not attend the inspection of election equipment.

Torrance is one of a handful of rural counties in New Mexico that considered delaying certification of the results of its primary election as angry crowds gave voice to unproven conspiracy theories about voting systems. The chaotic coda to the June primary drew national attention to a state that is expected to have several tight races this year for high-profile offices, including governor.

County Manager Janice Barela said the three-member commission voted unanimously Monday to submit a complaint with state and local prosecutors that seeks to remove Otero, a Republican, from her elected office. The commission said she botched the certification of the county's 22 ballot-counting machines and cites separate allegations that Otero harassed employees of the clerk's office on multiple occasions.

The New Mexico secretary of state's offices said certificates for ballot tabulation machines should be signed by the clerk or deputy clerk who attends the inspection and the testing of the machines.

Otero, whose elected term runs through 2024, did not immediately return phone calls and text messages.

Torrance County Commission Chairman Ryan Schwebach urged Otero to resign at a special meeting of the commission in Estancia on Monday. Otero attended the meeting and declined to respond, citing the advice of legal counsel.

The politically conservative county continues to grapple with simmering mistrust about voting systems as a national network of conspiracy theorists pushes false allegations of fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Torrance County’s all-Republican board of commissioners has responded to that anger and skepticism by assigning county staff to monitor preparations for the November general election and conduct a hand recount of primary election results.

Barela is at the forefront of that oversight effort. She attended the certification of voting machines last week and said pre-signed certificates struck her as “dishonest” because the county clerk was not in attendance.

“That goes to the core of what her duties are,” Barela said Tuesday. “That's the very first thing, is certifying the machines. ... That means something. We need to have trust.”

Torrance County Deputy Clerk Sylvia Chavez said technicians began a second round of ballot-machine testing last Friday, after consulting with state election regulators. She oversaw the testing again and signed the recertification of eight machines — enough equipment to tally ballots from early voting that begins Oct. 11. That still leaves time to review other machines before Election Day voting on Nov. 8, she said.

Chavez said the physical inspection and testing of election equipment by technicians, using mock ballots, never strayed from procedures set out by the secretary of state.

New Mexico uses paper ballots that are machine tallied and stored for possible recounts. County clerks oversee a canvass to double-check ballot tallies, and a certified public accountant conducts an audit after each statewide election with hand tallies of randomly selected precincts to verify accuracy.

County officials also are forwarding to prosecutors a complaint that Otero’s mother was hired by the clerk’s office as a paid precinct judge and member of a county voter registration board, a possible conflict with state regulations against nepotism. The family connection was first noted by Libertarian Party officials.

State Elections Director Mandy Vigil reviewed the nepotism complaint and found the restrictions against family serving on election boards do not apply because Otero has not been up for reelection. Otero has said her mother is highly qualified and was hired by agency staff and not by herself directly.

Morgan Lee, The Associated Press