Shredded ballots cause election kerfuffle
Rio Arriba County is sort of a miniature Chicago when it comes to elections. The year began with the indictments of two of its residents for voter fraud. One of them is the wife of an Española city councilor.
Then, in last month’s primary election, 55 paper ballots that had been cast by Democratic voters were slashed to indecipherable ribbons by poll workers. This was no small blunder.
The case of the butchered ballots cast doubt on the outcome of a close race for a seat on the Rio Arriba County Board of Commissioners.
Not until Thursday night, five weeks after the polls closed in the primary election, did a
mild-mannered pastor finally win the commissioner’s election. His victory occurred in a Santa Fe courtroom, where state District Judge Jason Lidyard got the final say.
Lidyard’s ruling capped a bizarre election that should have ended June 5, primary night. Instead, the race for the commissioner’s seat turned into a prolonged melodrama that began in an unlikely spot — the rural outpost of Ojo Sarco.
Derrick Rodriguez, an employee of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, was moonlighting as the presiding election judge of Ojo Sarco’s Precinct 17.
Rodriguez testified that election day had started as a summer breeze. Voters trickled into his Precinct 17 a couple at a time. Nothing more challenging occurred than a handful of voters needing extra instruction on coloring in the circles on their ballots so the voting machine would read their choices correctly.
When the polls closed, Rodriguez phoned the Rio Arriba County Clerk’s Office for advice on what to do with the paper ballots. He testified that an employee of the clerk’s office told him to tear them up.
Rodriguez said he could not recall the name of the worker who gave him this instruction. More likely, Rodriguez misunderstood.
In any case, he told his three-member crew to rip up all the ballots. But they were only supposed to tear up unused ballots, not the ones voters had filled out.
This wouldn’t have mattered so much if the race for Rio Arriba County commissioner in District 1 had not turned into a nail-biter.
Unofficial returns showed political
newcomer James J. Martinez defeating former Commissioner Elias Coriz, 863-859. Two other candidates trailed them.
Recounts are not automatic in county races, even one this close. But Coriz wanted one. He paid $3,400 to cover the cost.
Once the recount commenced, employees of the county clerk’s office discovered all the paper ballots from Precinct 17 had been mistakenly cut up. In tatters, the ballots could not be put back together again.
This led Coriz’s lawyer, Scott Fuqua, to argue that none of the ballots cast in Ojo Sarco for commissioner candidates should be counted.
His proposal would have reversed the outcome of the election. Throw
out the votes from Ojo Sarco and Coriz would win the race with 846 votes to 841 for Martinez.
Martinez’s lawyer, Kate Girard, countered that a clear and accurate record of the votes was readily available. She said the digital image of every ballot was recorded by the voting machine. This showed that all the votes in Ojo Sarco had been tabulated correctly.
Judge Lidyard subpoenaed three of the four poll workers who had played a part in shredding the ballots. The other was out of state.
Skittish on the witness stand, poll worker John Sanchez, a retired iron worker, said he thought ripping the ballots was proper, based on the instructions he received from his presiding election judge.
“Everything we did, we did it together and we did it by the book,” Sanchez said.
Girard held no animus toward the confused election crew. In her view, what the poll workers did was an honest mistake.
“At the end of a 13-hour day, it happens,” Girard said.
She argued to Judge Lidyard that state case law called for the election result to stand, especially because the digital images of the ballots verified that Martinez won the race.
Fuqua said the digital images were worthless. State election law says ballots themselves must be checked in a recount. A replica of the ballots, Fuqua said, is no more valid than making a copy of a $100 bill and expecting the counterfeit version to be treated as real money.
At the end of a five-hour hearing, Lidyard came down firmly on the side of Martinez, the original winner.
Citing the sentiments of the Ohio Supreme Court in a contested election, Lidyard said judges should be reluctant to interfere in the results of an election.
Then he declared Martinez the county commissioner-elect. A speech therapist and associate pastor at Rock Christian Fellowship Church, Martinez has no opponent in the November general election.
The courtroom resounded with cheering from Martinez’s supporters.
Coriz, the defeated candidate, could have appealed Lidyard’s ruling by contesting the election.
Instead, Coriz stood, extended his hand to Martinez and congratulated him on his victory.
With that, the best moment of the day, Rio Arriba County’s longest election was finally finished.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-986-3080.
James J. Martinez, who won a primary race for Rio Arriba County commissioner, listens to Judge Jason Lidyard on Thursday in District Court.
Elias Coriz, who lost a primary race for Rio Arriba County commissioner, listens Thursday as Judge Jason Lidyard questions Rio Arriba County Bureau of Elections Chief Michele Jordan.