Shred­ded bal­lots cause elec­tion ker­fuf­fle

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - Mi­lan Si­monich Ring­side Seat

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 msi­monich@sfnewmex­i­can.com or 505-986-3080.

LUIS SÁNCHEZ SATURNO THE NEW MEX­I­CAN

James J. Mar­tinez, who won a pri­mary race for Rio Ar­riba County com­mis­sioner, lis­tens to Judge Ja­son Lid­yard on Thurs­day in District Court.

LUIS SÁNCHEZ SATURNO/THE NEW MEX­I­CAN

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.

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