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Screams, threats as New Mexico counties certify vote

FILE - Otero County, N.M., Commissioner Couy Griffin stands outside the federal court after...
FILE - Otero County, N.M., Commissioner Couy Griffin stands outside the federal court after receiving a verdict in his trial on March 22 in Washington. New Mexico’s secretary of state asked the state's Supreme Court on Tuesday, June 14, 2022, to order the Republican-led commission of rural Otero County to certify primary election results after it refused to do so over distrust of Dominion vote-tallying machines.(AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe, File)
Published: Jun. 17, 2022 at 6:47 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 17, 2022 at 8:50 PM EDT
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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A standoff over the security of voting machines between a Republican-leaning county in New Mexico and Democratic state officials that threatened to erupt into a wider political crisis was defused Friday after local commissioners voted to certify their election results.

The move by the Otero County commission reversed an earlier decision against certifying results of the June 7 primary because of unspecified concerns with Dominion voting systems, a target of widespread conspiracy theories since the 2020 presidential election.

The two commissioners who voted in favor said they had been threatened with prosecution by the state attorney general and had no choice under the law — but criticized their position as being little more than rubber stamps.

Commissioner Couy Griffin was the lone dissenting vote, but acknowledged that he had no basis for questioning the results of the election. He dialed in to the meeting because he was in Washington, D.C., where hours before he had been sentenced for entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

“My vote to remain a ‘no’ isn’t based on any evidence. It’s not based on any facts,” Griffin said, nevertheless requesting a hand recount of ballots. “It’s only based on my gut feeling and my own intuition.”

The Otero elections clerk earlier told The Associated Press that the primary had gone off without a hitch and that the results had been confirmed afterward: “It was a great election,” said Robyn Holmes, a Republican.

Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who had appealed to the state Supreme Court to intervene, expressed relief at the Otero County decision and called it a “shame that the commission pushed our state to the brink of a crisis by their actions.”

The showdown provided a stark example of the chaos that election experts across the U.S. have warned about as those who promote the lie that former President Donald Trump was cheated out of reelection seek to populate election offices across the country and the usually low-profile boards that certify the results. Conspiracy theories mixing with misinformation has produced a volatile stew that has reduced confidence in elections, led to threats against election officials and created fears of violence in future elections.

The passions were on full display Friday, the final day for New Mexico’s 33 counties to certify their primary results. The last six counties to certify all voted to do so, but it was not without outbursts of fury from some of those attending the meetings.

In one politically conservative county, angry residents greeted their three commissioners with screams and vitriol as they met to consider certification. As the visibly frustrated Torrance County commissioners indicated they were going to vote to certify their election, the audience shouted “Shame on you,” “cowards and traitors,” and “Who elected you?”

The commissioners pleaded with the audience for patience and said concerns about alleged election vulnerabilities eventually would be addressed.

“The time and place to fight this battle is not by canvassing this election,” Chairman Ryan Schwebach told the crowd in Torrance County.

In another county, a commission chairman pounded a gavel frantically and ordered law enforcement to clear livid protesters from the room. The 4-1 vote to certify the election by a Republican-dominated commission in Sandoval County was nearly drowned out by jeers of opposition in a divided audience.

Commissioner Jay Block — a failed Republican primary candidate for governor in the June 7 vote — noted his opposition to hoots of approval and applause.

“It is imperative that we are presented with a complete set of facts” about the election, Block said.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting equipment that could have affected the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, and no such fraud has surfaced in this year’s midterms.

To underscore the accuracy of election results, another Sandoval County commissioner read to the audience the findings of an audit that compared the votes recorded by the county’s tabulating machines in 2020 with a sampling of the actual paper ballots. The difference was just a fraction of 1% in the races for president, U.S. Senate and other offices — “almost insignificant,” Republican commissioner David Heil said.

Certifying elections by typically under-the-radar local commissions has been a routine ministerial task for decades that has become politicized ever since Trump sought to undermine the process following his loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 election.

Otero County thrust the issue into the spotlight this week when its commission said it would not certify the local results from the primary because of concerns over Dominion voting systems, even though there was no evidence of problems. Had they stuck to their guns, the commissioners potentially would have disenfranchised more than 7,300 voters in a county that voted heavily for Trump in 2020.

New Mexico’s primary ballot included races at all levels — including Congress, governor, attorney general and a long list of local offices. Those races would not be official until all counties certified.

The developments in New Mexico can be traced to far-right conspiracy theories over voting machines that have spread across the country over the past two years. Various Trump allies have claimed that Dominion voting systems had somehow been manipulated as part of an elaborate scheme to steal the election, which Biden won.

Dominion has filed several defamation lawsuits, including against Fox News, and in a statement earlier this week said the action by the Otero County commissioners was “yet another example of how lies about Dominion have damaged our company and diminished the public’s faith in elections.”

Election officials outside New Mexico are taking notice. The secretary of state’s office said Friday it has been flooded with calls from officials concerned that certification controversies will become a new front in the attacks on democratic norms and could affect future elections, especially in 2024.

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Associated Press writers Christina Almeida Cassidy in Atlanta, Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, and Terry Tang in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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