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Election revives bad memories of 2012 chaos

Signpost staff

Anger over 2012 election lines in Rio Rancho boils again as the Sandoval County clerk appealed a federal court decision aimed at how she runs the 2014 election.

Calls for the resignation of County Clerk Eileen Garbagni and her Bureau of Elections chief topped the list of last-minute issues leading up to the November 4 election. In October, the district attorney refiled felony bribary charges against Republican District 1 county commission candidate Gary Miles. There are also unresolved claims and counterclaims in the sheriff's race that resulted from a dinnertime dispute at the Range Cafe between Sheriff Wood and the family of challenger Jesse James Casaus, but no charges were filed.

Garbagni, a Democrat who was not in office in 2012 but is named in the lawsuit that followed, said she already was doing what the court was ordering and is basing the appeal on other issues. "The plan dramatically increases the number of voting places and machines (in Rio Rancho)," she told county commissioners at their October 17 meeting. "I will, of course, follow that plan."

However, that didn't stop 11 voters including Republican leaders and candidates from besieging the county commission and recounting tales from 2012—of hours-long waits causing many voters in the Republican-heavy city to give up in disgust and frustration. The commission was dismissed as a defendant in the court case and has no say in the appeal.

The Election Day chaos resulted from the then-County Clerk Sally Padilla establishing only five voting centers for the approximately 58,000 voters registered in Rio Rancho. Following the debacle, two losing GOP candidates and a voter filed suit asking, among other things, that the election results be overturned and the losing candidates declared winners.

As the lawsuit moved through state court, where it was dismissed, and then federal court, it shrank to the one issue of how to conduct the 2014 election. By the time U.S. District Judge William Johnson ruled in September, Garbagni already was committed to opening 17 voting centers around Rio Rancho under the plan approved by county commissioners a year ago.

"The end result is a preliminary injunction ordering the clerk to do what she said she would do," County Attorney Patrick Trujillo told commissioners. The clerk and the county's contract attorney handling the case both feel there are issues beyond the conduct of the election worthy of appeal, he added.

Several speakers including Sandoval County Republican Party Chairman Charles Christmann of Placitas urged the appeal be dropped as unnecessary and claimed a history of voting abuses in the county warrants federal supervision. County elections were under federal oversight from 1994 through the 2012 election, but that was the result of a Department of Justice complaint limited to providing language assistance for Native Americans voters.

Garbagni cites three reasons for the appeal, two of them legal: whether the plaintiffs actually had legal standing to file the lawsuit and whether the court's standard of review is proper. The third reason is financial, as Trujillo said, if the decision stands, the county may be forced to pay the plaintiff's legal fees running "well into six figures."

 “If we didn’t fight this injunction, it could set the stage for the federal government to insert itself into any election in any county in New Mexico," Garbagni said in a news release. "That’s why the New Mexico Association of Counties supports the appeal.”

Early voting began on October 7 with absentee in-person voting at one site, the Sandoval County Transit Center in the government complex on Idalia Road at State Route 528. It expanded dramatically on October 18 with 14 early voting sites opening in Rio Rancho, Corrales, 800 South Hill Road in Bernalillo, Navajo chapter houses in Torreon and Ojo Encino, and at Cochiti, Santo Domingo, Zia, Santa Ana, Jemez, and San Felipe pueblos. The county reported 1,516 early votes cast through October 18. In-person absentee voting ends on October 31; early voting sites close after November 1.

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