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Tuesday July 5th, 2022 12:33PM

Building anger in rural New Mexico erupts in election crisis

By The Associated Press
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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Behind the raw public frustration and anger over election security that has played out this week in New Mexico was a hint of something deeper -- a growing divide between the state’s Democratic power structure and conservative rural residents who feel their way of life is under attack.

In Otero County, where the crisis over certifying the state’s June 7 primary election began, County Commissioner Vickie Marquardt struck a defiant tone as she relented under pressure from the state’s Democratic attorney general, Democratic secretary of state and a state Supreme Court dominated by Democratic appointees.

One of the main explanations she gave for reversing course had nothing to do with questions over the security of voting machines — the reason the all-Republican, three-member commission had originally refused to certify its election.

“If we get removed from office, nobody is going to be here fighting for the ranchers, and that’s where our fight should be right now,” said Marquardt, the commission chairwoman in a county where former President Donald Trump won nearly 62% of the vote in 2020.

Otero County is similar to the handful of other New Mexico counties where residents have questioned the accuracy of election results and given voice to unfounded conspiracy theories about voting systems that have rippled across the country since former President Donald Trump lost re-election in 2020.

In the state’s vast, rural stretches, frustration over voting and political representation has been building for years. Residents have felt marginalized and overrun by government decisions that have placed limits on livelihoods — curtailing access to water for livestock, shrinking the amount of forest land available for grazing, or halting timber operations and energy developments due to endangered species concerns.

Tensions have mounted as Democrats in New Mexico consolidate control over every statewide office and the Supreme Court. Democrats have dominated the Legislature for generations.

Even as they voted to certify their elections, sometimes reluctantly, commissioners from several New Mexico counties said they were bound by the law to take that step — thanks to legislation passed by Democrats. They urged their residents to take the fight to the statehouse.

Some bemoaned what they felt was an encroachment by the state on the powers of local government. Marquardt, from Otero County, complained of her commission’s meager “rubber stamping” authority under laws enacted by Democrats and an election certification “railroaded” through by larger forces.

Otero County is among more than a dozen self-proclaimed 2nd Amendment “sanctuary” counties in rural New Mexico to approve defiant resolutions against recent state gun control laws. The county also has embraced resistance to President Joe Biden’s goals for conservation of more private land and waterways for natural habitat, arguing it will cordon off already limited private land.

Amid alienation, skepticism about the security of elections has taken flight.

On Friday, Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin was the lone dissenting vote in the election certification, though he acknowledged that he had no evidence of problems or factual basis for questioning the results of the election. His vote came after the county elections clerk said the primary went off without a hitch and that the results were confirmed afterward.

The former rodeo rider and co-founder of Cowboys for Trump dialed into the meeting because he was in Washington, D.C., where hours before he had been sentenced for entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

Applause rang out when Griffin declared, “I think we need to hold our ground.”

The developments in New Mexico can be traced to far-right conspiracy theories over voting machines that have spread across the country over the past two years. Various Trump allies have claimed that Dominion voting systems had somehow been manipulated as part of an elaborate scheme to steal the election, which Biden won.

There has been no evidence of widespread fraud that would have changed the results of the 2020 presidential election, and testimony before the congressional committee investigating the insurrection has made clear that many in Trump’s inner circle told him the same as he schemed to retain power.

The election clash that erupted this past week worries Dian Burwell, a registered independent and coffee shop manager in the Otero County seat of Alamogordo.

“We want people to vote and when they see all this, they’ll just say, ‘Why bother?’” Burwell said.

Despite New Mexico counties’ eventual votes to certify their primary results, election officials and experts fear the mini-rebellion is just the start of efforts nationwide to sow chaos around voting and vote-counting, building toward the 2024 presidential election. The New Mexico secretary of state’s office said it had been inundated with calls from officials around the country concerned that certification controversies will become a new front in the attacks on democratic norms.

In another New Mexico county where residents angrily denounced the certification, commissioners were denounced as “cowards and traitors” by a hostile crowd before voting. Torrance County Commissioner LeRoy Candelaria, a Republican and Vietnam veteran, voted to certify the results without apologies, despite the personal insults.

The semi-retired rancher and highway maintenance foreman said he has taken time outside commission meetings to explain his position that New Mexico’s vote-counting machines are well-tested and monitored.

“Our county clerk did an excellent job. I don’t think there’s a vote that went wrong in any way,” Candelaria said later in a telephone interview. “My personal opinion is there are people who are still mad about the last presidential election. ... Let’s worry about the next election and not take things personally.”

___

Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Anita Snow and Terry Tang in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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