Voter-fraud allegations won’t delay Sunland Park election
Though Texans have allegedly voted illegally, the election will proceed as planned on Tuesday; state and county officials are stepping in to ensure the integrity of the process from this point on.
Despite a report from the secretary of state alleging multiple cases of voter fraud, a district judge denied a request today to delay the Sunland Park municipal election, saying the district attorney hadn’t proven that “irreparable harm” had been done.
That means the election will proceed as planned on Tuesday even though law enforcement and elections officials believe Texas residents have already voted illegally in the New Mexico city, compromising or at least calling into question the integrity of the process.
A petition Orlando filed in court states that the problems investigators uncovered have so compromised the integrity of the election that “there is no confidence that the election will accurately reflect the wishes of the qualified electorate of Sunland Park.”
The decision from District Judge Susan Riedel to allow the election to proceed caps a two-week period that saw the arrests of mayoral candidate Daniel Salinas and others on charges related to an attempt to use a lap-dance video to force another candidate out of the mayoral race, the investigation into election problems, and the initiation of a state audit into financial problems in the city. In addition, the FBI is scrutinizing city contracts.
Following Riedel’s decision, law enforcement and county elections officials say they’ll work to ensure that the election process has integrity from this point on. Staffers from the Doña Ana County Clerk’s Office and police will be in Sunland Park on Tuesday.
“We will have a presence at the polls,” County Clerk Lynn Ellins said. “We will do our best to monitor the polls next Tuesday to make sure that people who live in Texas don’t vote.”
Details of the allegations
District Attorney Amy Orlando argued for the postponement in Riedel’s courtroom this afternoon, making a request that was apparently unprecedented in New Mexico to grant Secretary of State Dianna Duran the authority to run a new election at a later date.
Orlando’s request was based on a lengthy report from Duran, who spent much of this week in Sunland Park investigating election-related complaints. In addition to voter fraud, the report alleges numerous other problems with the way Sunland Park’s election has been conducted.
Among the issues identified in Orlando’s petition and Duran’s report:
- Thirteen individuals are registered to vote at one residence in Sunland Park, including six who registered between Jan. 5 and Feb. 7 of this year. Eight of them, including five who have already voted, don’t actually live in Sunland Park. More than one appears to also be registered to vote in El Paso.
- One woman helped several others who aren’t Sunland Park residents register to vote. Some of them have voted.
- When the first batch of 500 absentee ballots for the municipal election arrived at city hall, Salinas or City Manager Jaime Aguilera, who is also charged in the lap-dance video case, took them. The first day of absentee voting, before the other mayoral candidates had access to the ballots, some 300 were cast. By comparison, about 15 were cast in the larger city of Farmington on that day.
- In some instances, secrecy envelopes designed to protect the identify of people voting early have not been used.
- No daily absentee voting reports were prepared for the first few weeks of early voting, though statute requires it. The number of ballots that machines indicate have been received doesn’t match the actual number of ballots received.
- State law requires the appointment of an absentee voter precinct board, but the city clerk has not done that.
- Orlando also confirmed at a news conference that law enforcement is investigating an allegation made by city police officers that the interim chief was hired in exchange for delivering votes to Salinas.
Fraudulently registering to vote and fraudulent voting are felonies. Though no one has been charged as a result of the voter-fraud investigation, Orlando said at least six Texans – and perhaps as many as 20 – will be. NMPolitics.net isn’t yet naming those people, though they’re identified in public records filed in court, but will do so if they are charged.
Several of those implicated in the case are Sunland Park city employees. One is a former city councilor.
Orlando ‘not going to stop looking’ for fraud
Voter fraud isn’t new in Sunland Park. In 2009, former Municipal Judge Horacio Favela was sentenced to 18 months on probation for fraudulently voting and registering as a candidate for judge. The El Paso resident voted in both Texas and New Mexico in 2004 and ran for and was elected judge in 2008 though he wasn’t a resident of Sunland Park. His wife was also convicted in that case.
Orlando suspects such fraud may be rampant in Sunland Park, and possibly also in El Paso. If Texas residents are committing voter fraud in New Mexico, perhaps New Mexicans are doing the same in Texas.
“I would not be surprised if you found, especially in a presidential election, people voting in both states,” Orlando said, citing Favela as an example. She noted that Duran found a handful of fraudulent voters in two and a half days of investigation, and said with more time, the number of fraudulent registrants investigators could identify might be “enormous.”
She said the probe continues. Investigators were in Sunland Park again today.
“I’m not going to stop looking into this just because the election is going forward,” Orlando said. “We have a presidential election coming up and we need to be ahead of it, not behind it.”
Residents encouraged to vote
In rejecting the request to delay the election, Riedel said there was time for officials to correct some of the improprieties that have already happened. But the ballots that were filled out by people who aren’t Sunland Park residents can’t be identified and disqualified; they will be counted toward the final result.
That’s the main reason Orlando sought to start the election over at a later date, after crimes have been investigated and city officials get better training on running elections.
“It wouldn’t disenfranchise anybody, because the election would still happen,” Orlando said.
She also said this was a unique opportunity to stop voter fraud from happening rather than prosecuting it later.
Instead, county and state officials will do their best to minimize the damage and help things move smoothly from this point on.
“I want to encourage you to get out and vote, whoever you support,” Orlando told Sunland Park residents at her news conference. She urged people to report problems to law enforcement, the county clerk or the secretary of state.
“We will try and be watching for any bullying, pressures, any criminal activity,” she said.
NMPolitics.net has heard allegations of voter intimidation in Sunland Park before, and Orlando seemed to indicate that it does happen.
“I understand the fear. I’ve heard it myself from people. I feel extremely sorry that we have a city in Doña Ana County that feels that way,” she said. “We are doing everything we can to fix that.”
“I think the district attorney’s office has proved in the last two weeks that we move quick,” she said.
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