Lots of New Mexicans have already voted in this year’s general election, but it’s too soon to know whether that will lead to increased overall turnout, the state’s top pollster said.
New Mexico’s higher-than-usual early voting numbers, if they continue through Election Day, could mean higher turnout this year than during the last presidential election in 2012. But there’s also been a recent trend toward viewing an election as a season, rather than a day, which has contributed to increased early voting.
“It could be a sign of early enthusiasm among some voters,” Brian Sanderoff of Research & Polling, Inc. in Albuquerque, the pollster, said about this year’s early turnout. “On the other hand, it could just mean less voting on Election Day.”
Whatever the case, early turnout has been strong statewide, numbers released by the Secretary of State’s Office indicate. The reasons are varied and may depend on the county-level dynamics.
For example, 10 percent of registered voters in Sierra County had already voted in person by Tuesday. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is expected to do well in that conservative, rural county.
And 7.1 percent of registered voters had voted in person in Taos County, a liberal stronghold Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is expected to win.
State legislative contests and the battle for control of the N.M. House of Representatives, which has led to lots of mailers and other paid media in several areas, could also be driving interest in some counties.
Turnout as of Tuesday was especially high in the southwestern corner of the state and Los Alamos and Taos counties up north, the Secretary of State’s numbers indicate.
But even in counties in the greater Albuquerque metro area, where turnout was lagging behind many other areas as of Tuesday, clerks said they were already seeing better turnout than 2012.
“We’ve never had the numbers this high. It’s just a steady flow,” said Sandoval County Clerk Eileen Garbagni. In her county 2.7 percent of registered voters had voted in person as of Tuesday.
In Bernalillo County, 0.9 percent of registered voters had voted in person by Tuesday. But when you add in that county’s high number of returned absentee ballots, 1.7 percent of registered voters had cast ballots. Those were already “very high numbers by historical Bernalillo standards,” said Maggie Toulouse Oliver, that county’s clerk.
Garbagni and Oliver said their counties will open additional early voting sites on Saturday. Both expect turnout to spike then. Currently, the only polling place in Bernalillo County is at the clerk’s office downtown, and Oliver said many voters find it inconvenient to drive there.
“We are prepping for big turnout this weekend,” Oliver said.
High turnout in Southwestern New Mexico
Southwestern New Mexico had the greatest concentration of counties with turnout that, by percentage of registered voters, stood out. In addition to Sierra County’s 10 percent, in-person turnout in Grant County was 8.5 percent through Tuesday. In Luna County it was 6.5 percent, and in Doña Ana County it was 5.7 percent.
The clerk in Sierra County, Connie Greer, said she isn’t sure how to explain the high turnout. Though many voters in that county historically vote early, this year’s turnout is unusually strong, she said.
Greer noted the county’s rural and elderly population and said early voting is a chance for people to get out of their homes. “What they seem to enjoy is there’s not a lot of waiting time,” Greer said.
The nonprofit Conservation Voters New Mexico has two political action committees working to turn out voters around the state for candidates it has endorsed — who this year are all Democrats. That group’s legislative and political director, Ben Shelton, said the high concentration of contested legislative seats in the southwestern corner of the state may be helping drive interest in the election.
Southwestern New Mexico has “some of the most involved, plugged in, passionate voters in the state,” Shelton said. He mentioned people being engaged because of the Gila River diversion project, mining and water issues, and the creation of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.
Voters in and around Doña Ana County were largely responsible in 2014 for electing Republican legislative candidates and giving the GOP control of the state House for the first time in decades. This year, Democrats are trying to take the House back.
Shelton said Doña Ana County has a “bench of candidates” that is “deeper than in any other area of the state.” He mentioned Democratic state legislative candidates Nathan Small, Jeff Steinborn and Angelica Rubio, saying, “they’re young, they’re dynamic, they’re intelligent, and people are excited about them.”
Sanderoff said legislative races can help boost turnout. Those candidates are are knocking on doors. In high-profile races, voters are also flooded with mailers and other paid media.
Doña Ana County Chief Deputy Clerk Scott Krahling also expects turnout to spike when the county opens six additional voting centers this weekend. The only polling place thus far has been at the Doña Ana County Government Center in west Las Cruces.
“We have done outreach throughout the county, so I expect early voting to increase once we open locations in communities that don’t have easy access to our office,” he said.
Shelton said control of the state House and the winner of the secretary of state’s race may be decided by voters in and around Las Cruces.
“The whole state could flip on Doña Ana County,” he said.
Turnout favors Democrats thus far
Statewide, early voting turnout thus far leans toward Democrats. As of Sept. 30, 47 percent of registered voters in New Mexico were Democrats, 31 percent were Republicans, and the remaining 22 percent were independents or members of other parties.
But as of Tuesday, 58.6 percent of people who had voted in person were Democrats, while 29.8 percent were Republicans and 11.6 percent were independents or members of other parties.
Deb Haaland, executive director of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, said early voting thus far indicates that “the Democratic message is resonating with voters across the state.”
“We’ll continue to work everyday to let voters know what’s at stake in this election and get out the vote for our candidates,” she said.
More Republicans will vote as Election Day approaches, predicted W. Tucker Keene, communications director for the Republican Party of New Mexico.
“Turnout, especially among Republicans, will increase as we get closer to Election Day and early voting locations expand beyond county clerk’s offices,” he said.
Shelton said voting against Trump has been “a very effective motivator” for some voters “to get out there early and get it out of the way.” But, like Keene, Shelton expects that more Republicans will turn out as voting progresses.