The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A small county in New Mexico shows where ‘big lie’ delusions can lead

County Commissioner Couy Griffin speaks in Santa Fe, N.M., on Jan. 31, 2020, as hundreds of advocates for gun rights rally at the New Mexico Capitol against a proposed red-flag gun law that had the support of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. (Morgan Lee/AP)

This is a story about how a small county in New Mexico has decided to reject the results of the state’s primary elections after being infected by Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud.

The first character in this story is Couy Griffin. In March, Griffin was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of illegally entering or remaining on restricted grounds by a federal judge — a verdict that followed Griffin’s presence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Griffin is a fervent supporter of the former president, being one of the founders of the group Cowboys for Trump. He is also an elected member of the three-person county commission in Otero County, N.M.

That brings us to the second character in the story, David Clements. Clements gained national attention after being fired from New Mexico State University after refusing to comply with the school’s coronavirus rules and has since made a name for himself as part of the election-fraud circuit. He’s turned up at public hearings around the country sowing doubt about the reliability of voting mechanisms used in the 2020 election.

Given those descriptions, it was perhaps inevitable that Clements and Griffin would at some point align.

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As they did, in February. At a meeting of the Otero County Commission, Clements and his wife, Erin, argued successfully for the county to engage in a review of its election results akin to the one in Maricopa County, Ariz., last year. That the Arizona “audit” failed to find concrete evidence of fraud or questionable practices — and not for lack of looking — did not appear to spur any caution on the part of commissioners. Neither did the fact that Otero County, unlike Maricopa, was won by Donald Trump, with more than 60 percent of the vote.

“Should I honor my oath and be loyal to the people,” Griffin said then as he responded to the county attorney’s stated concern about a possible state intervention, “or should I cow to the state and say, ‘Oh no, I might get sued or I might get in trouble?’ ”

The county commission voted to move forward with the probe, authorizing nearly $50,000 to pay a firm called EchoMail to conduct it. EchoMail was also involved in the Arizona “audit,” with founder Shiva Ayyadurai offering public testimony to state legislators in that matter. In short order, Ayyadurai’s assertions were thoroughly debunked, stemming from a lack of understanding about how elections were run. That was last October; four months later, Griffin and his colleagues on the Otero County Commission authorized the payment to Ayyadurai’s company — after hearing Erin Clements describe him as “one of the smartest men in the country.”

The EchoMail proposal included a door-to-door canvass of voters conducted by volunteers from the “New Mexico Audit Force,” with which the Clementses are associated. That canvass quickly raised the ire of the House Oversight Committee, which decried the effort as risking “intimidation directed at minority voters.” In response, Ayyadurai denied that EchoMail had contracted anyone to conduct the canvass — although, in a separate letter to the state, his company admitted to receiving data from the canvassers.

EchoMail bailed. In mid-March, soon after House Oversight weighed in, the company reportedly handed over a limited analysis to Otero County, sparking a legal back-and-forth over the value of the work conducted. Eventually, EchoMail reached an agreement with the county in which it would return a portion of what it had received as payment. Included in that agreement was an important line: EchoMail “found No Election Fraud as a result of their services.”

New Mexico Audit Force, however, pressed forward with the theory that the voting process was tainted by fraud. As did the county commissioners, who last week decided to mandate a hand recount of votes cast in this month’s primary elections, although that action would depend on the agreement of a judge. The commissioners — acting on proposals offered by Griffin — also determined that the county would ignore state mandates for ballot drop boxes moving forward and that it wouldn’t use electronic voting machines provided by Dominion Voting Systems under a state contract.

On Monday, the county commissioners declined to certify the primary results. On Tuesday, the state sued to force them to do so.

“The post-election canvassing process is a key component of how we maintain our high levels of election integrity in New Mexico,” Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said in a statement, “and the Otero County Commission is flaunting that process by appeasing unfounded conspiracy theories and potentially nullifying the votes of every Otero County voter who participated in the Primary.”

That “unfounded conspiracy theories” point is important. At the beginning of the meeting Monday, Griffin responded to a request that the commission fulfill its duty to certify the election by describing his duty to uphold his oath of service to his constituents. That oath, he suggested, necessitated elevating skepticism about voting results, a skepticism that he and his colleagues seem sincerely to hold.

“When I certify stuff that I don’t know is right,” County Commissioner Vickie Marquardt said during the hearing, “I feel like I’m being dishonest because in my heart I don’t know if it is right.”

(That mirrored an argument made by David Clements last week as the commission debated rejecting electronic voting machines. “The question is what effect does it have on this commission to use something they know is not trustworthy,” he argued, later adding: “At that point you all become culpable.”)

Told on Monday that they could be forced by a court to certify the election, Griffin sighed. (“So, what,” Marquardt asked, “they’re going to send us to the pokey?”)

“And that’s how we get control from the top down,” Griffin said. (Requests for comment from the commissioners did not receive a response by the time of publication.)

It’s worth reviewing the path by which the county commission reached this point. Donald Trump, eager to soften his likely and then actual election loss, elevated unfounded allegations about voter fraud. His supporters believed him. Various opportunists, sincere and otherwise, rushed to fill the demand for evidence of fraud that Trump created. Over time, this created a self-reinforcing narrative: since the claims of fraud defied any debunking, the purported threat of fraud remained intact.

So a county that backed Trump handily — a county in which no fraud has been shown, a county that paid for a review of its votes that found no fraud — ends up rejecting its own election results. It does so out of both a concern that this unproven fraud continues undetected and out of obstinacy as authorities demand that the county officials adhere to reality.

Otero County is an outlier, a dark-red area in which a fervent Trump ally (and Jan. 6 participant) controls one-third of the seat of power. But it also reflects how an established effort to uproot nonexistent fraud poses a real and ongoing risk to free and fair elections.

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