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A secretly recorded video appears to show a Republican official training poll challengers in New Mexico with false information about election law that could be used to suppress voting rights. The training seminar, released by ProgressNow New Mexico, along with a training manual obtained by the group, which was produced by the Sandoval County Republican Party, present false information about the state’s election and voter ID laws and encourage poll challengers to overstep their legal authority.
In the video, recorded on Sept. 26 at “Poll Challenger Training,” Pat Morlen, the vice chair of the Republican Party of Sandoval County, which is just north of Albuquerque, tells trainees that a voter can be required to show an ID “at the request of two or more precinct board members of different political parties.” She also says that voters who were targeted by a recent and controversial voter roll purge conducted by the secretary of state will be forced to vote on a provisional ballot, which won’t be counted unless the election is close. A poll challenger is a representative of either party who can challenge the right of someone to vote based on reasonable suspicion that the voter doesn’t have a right to, but the materials suggest they have more power than to observe and inform officials.
Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who oversees elections as the county clerk of Bernalillo County, which contains Albuquerque, said many of the claims in the training manual are “just inaccurate, either outright or by omission.” One thing that concerned her was the training manual’s suggestion that poll watchers or challengers could “correct” the real election officials, who are appointed by county clerks like her. “They certainly don’t have any authority to make corrections,” she told Salon. “I am really concerned about this concept that you might have these poll watchers out there feeling like they have some legal authority over the process that they don’t have. And acting sort of in a vigilante capacity,” she added.
On the claim that voters can be required to present ID if two precinct board members request it, Oliver said: “That’s just not correct. That’s completely out of step with what’s required by the law.” This selective enforcement of a voter ID law that doesn’t exist could lead to “situations of voter intimidation, unequal treatment of voters, things like that,” Oliver explained.
“I am sure that this organization is well intentioned in terms of wanting to ensure the integrity of the election process,” she said. “And if they are acting within their legal authority as watchers and challengers, then they’re doing their job in helping ensure the transparency of the election process. But if they’re acting in an extra-authoritarian role, then yes, it could potentially intimidate voters and that is a concern. Or obstruct the election process, and that is a concern.”
It’s a reasonable concern considering what happened in Las Cruces two years ago. That year police had to remove two GOP poll challengers from a polling place in the southern New Mexico town for being disruptive and accusing the election judge of tampering with absentee ballots. Earlier, six Republican poll challengers in the same county were “reprimanded” for handling ballots — only election workers can do that — and for insisting that some voters be required to present ID.
Viki Harrison, the executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, didn’t mince words in her assessment of the undercover tape and training manual. “It’s totally insane,” she told Salon. She noted that the state has already been dealing with an attack on voting rights after the secretary of state’s purge, in which 177,000 residents received postcards warning them that they might be removed from the rolls. Even Common Cause’s own voting rights director, who hasn’t missed an election since 1971 and hasn’t recently moved, got a postcard from the state.
But the training manual and the seminar misrepresented the consequences of receiving a postcard. The state is under order from the federal Department of Justice to not remove anyone from the polls until after the November 2014 election. All one has to do to remain an active voter is vote in any election between now and then, or return the postcard. But in the training manual and the seminar captured on video, the Sandoval Republicans are instructing poll challengers that voters who received a postcard must vote provisionally and that it won’t count unless the election is close. That’s false and “just horrifying,” Harrison said.
She also expressed concern about Morlen’s snide comments about Spanish speakers and people with mental disabilities voting. At the training seminar, ironically held at a nonprofit organization that works with mentally disabled adults, Morlen said of people with disabilities, “My own opinion is if the person can’t even say their name, at least their name, I don’t see why they should be voting.” She also suggested that ballots are not available in Spanish and that no assistance will be available for people who don’t speak English. That’s not true, according to the secretary of state’s website.
“Luckily, these are the only ones that we’ve heard that are doing this,” Harrison said. But in a year dominated by concerns about voter ID and other efforts to suppress the vote, it probably won’t be the last.
Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.More Alex Seitz-Wald.