The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New Mexico county certifies election results, bowing to court order

Otero County commissioners voted 2 to 1 to accept results in this month’s primary, reversing an earlier decision driven by unfounded concerns about fraud

Couy Griffin addresses reporters outside federal court in Washington on June 17. The founder of the group Cowboys for Trump was sentenced to 14 days in jail for entering a restricted area during the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. Griffin also serves as one of three county commissioners in Otero County, N.M., and said he wouldn't vote to certify results of the June 7 primary election there, citing his distrust of the state's voting machines. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)
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Commissioners in New Mexico’s Otero County voted 2 to 1 Friday to comply with a state Supreme Court order and certify primary-election results, reversing an earlier rejection of vote totals over unfounded claims that voting machines were insecure.

In an afternoon meeting, Republican County Commissioners Vickie Marquardt and Gerald Matherly voted to certify the results from the state’s June 7 primary over the objections of the third commissioner, Couy Griffin.

Griffin, the founder of Cowboys for Trump, spoke by phone from Washington, where he had been sentenced earlier Friday to 14 days in jail on one count of entering a restricted area during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In his remarks, Griffin refused to back down from assertions that the machines were not secure or apologize for leading a charge against a normally straightforward procedural vote that caused a week-long uproar.

“My vote to remain a no isn’t based on any evidence, it’s not based on any facts, it’s only based on my gut feeling and my own intuition, and that’s all I need,” Griffin said.

On Wednesday, New Mexico’s Supreme Court granted an emergency petition by the secretary of state demanding that the Otero commissioners do their job and approve some 7,300 votes from the primary, where races such as the county’s only state House seat and county sheriff hung in the balance.

The state’s attorney general, Hector Balderas, had said Friday that the commissioners “must comply with the rule of law” or face legal action and potentially be removed from office.

“I don’t want to let anybody down, I know there’s a lot of people who want us to stand our ground,” Marquardt said Friday. But, she said, “I don’t think it’s worth us getting removed from our seats to do that.”

Commissioners in a second county, Torrance, who had delayed certification earlier this week, voted to approve the vote totals in a contentious public hearing Friday morning.

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The controversy marks the most recent challenge to the democratic process posed by supporters of former president Donald Trump who believe his repeated but unfounded claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

The Otero commission’s Monday vote to refuse to certify the results raised fears among democracy advocates that the process of administering elections and reporting results could be disrupted during the midterms in November.

New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver released a statement after Friday’s vote saying she was “relieved” that the county commission “finally did the right thing.”

“We note that the Commission admitted that they did not have any facts to support not certifying the election results,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that we had to take action to make sure Otero County voters were not disenfranchised … and it is a shame that the Commission pushed our state to the brink of a crisis by their actions.”

New Mexico's Supreme Court orders county commission to certify vote

By law, county commissions in New Mexico are required to approve the primary results by June 17 unless they can point to a specific problem that occurred during voting for that election. In both Otero and Torrance, residents have seemed more concerned about the overall security of the Dominion Voting Systems machines than any particular issue at their local polls.

Griffin, a stonemason and former rodeo cowboy for Disneyland Paris, has insisted that his objections are not partisan. He has explained his refusal to certify by claiming that the machines’ hardware has not been updated since 2011. (A bipartisan commission recertified the machines just last year.) He has also said that the machines, which are not linked to the internet, could be hacked.

Trump and his acolytes have long claimed that Dominion Voting Systems machines — like those used in New Mexico — are flawed. Dominion officials have denied those allegations, filing multibillion-dollar defamation lawsuits against various figures who spread the claims.

This week, a spokesperson for Dominion, Stephanie Walstrom, said in a statement that the Otero vote “is yet another example of how lies about Dominion have damaged our company and diminished the public’s faith in elections.”

Earlier this year, the Otero commissioners hired a third-party audit company called EchoMail to look at their 2020 presidential election returns. The company — which was also involved in a controversial recount in Arizona — was aided by a group of volunteers calling themselves the “New Mexico Audit Force,” who went door to door attempting to verify the 2020 results.

The effort prompted a warning from state officials, with Oliver dubbing it a “vigilante audit.” Eventually the audit fell apart; a settlement agreement that EchoMail reached with the county showed that the company “found No Election Fraud as a result of their services.”

Nonetheless, both Torrance and Otero county commissioners have in recent weeks heard presentations by David Clements, a former New Mexico State University business professor, and his wife, Erin, who travel the country promoting election fraud theories. Clements was fired from his university post last year after refusing to comply with coronavirus measures. The couple could not be reached for comment.

At an hours-long hearing before the Otero County commission on May 9, David Clements urged the commissioners to call an emergency session, declare a vote of no confidence in the vote tally results and demand a hand count.

“This is about courage!” he told them.

The county commissioners appeared to take his words to heart. This month, they voted to begin hand-counting election returns, remove secure ballot boxes and stop using the state’s voting systems, which Oliver said this week was illegal.

In Torrance County, meanwhile, the Republican-led commission approved the primary results Friday morning after a raucous meeting in which citizens hurled insults at the board members — calling them “cowards,” “traitors to our country” and “rubber stamp puppets.” The group of about a dozen certification opponents was particularly incensed by the idea that state judges — “demons wearing black robes,” in the words of one speaker — could tell county officials what to do. Clements led off the public comments.

“Do the right thing,” James Reader, a Torrance County resident, told the commissioners. “Remember who you’re elected by. You’re not elected by the secretary of state, you’re elected by the people of Torrance County.”

Commission Chairman Ryan Schwebach, a local farmer who grows alfalfa and corn for the dairy industry, said in an interview that he and other commissioners had wanted time to weigh the issues and hear their constituents’ concerns when they moved to delay certification until Friday.

“The reality is there are a lot of people that do not have faith in our voting system, that is the key takeaway,” he said.

In the hearing Friday, he said that he and his fellow commissioners had no other choice but to follow the law, but that they needed to work together to address what he described as the “potential for fraudulent activity.”

“This is the start of the fight,” Schwebach said. “We are aware of the situation and aware of the concerns, and we’re preparing to fight it and hopefully win the battle.”

Magda Jean-Louis and Tom Jackman contributed to this report from Washington.