Common Cause New Mexico executive director Heather Ferguson addresses local League of Women Voters members June 16 during a Zoom event. Screenshot/Los Alamos Reporter
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Heather Ferguson, executive director for Common Cause New Mexico was the guest speaker at the League of Women Voters virtual Lunch with a Leader Jun. 16. Ferguson, who manages a staff of three plus multiple independent contractors, is responsible for policy initiatives, strategic management of campaigns, fundraising, elected official outreach, communications, media relations and administration of the organization.
During the Zoom call, Ferguson did an extensive debrief on the June 3 Primary Election in New Mexico and delved in depth into some of the challenges faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that at the moment the country is in very unprecedented and challenging times with its democracy. She said there are so many protections in place but that with the change in some administrations in the country, effects have been seen at national levels but also in New Mexico that are impacting the lives of everyday voters.
Ferguson said with the historical challenges that exist, Common Cause has had to quickly be nimble and flexible in the work that it does so that it can look at issues such as the primary election here on of the number one challenges that arose was that Common Cause filed a lawsuit in the New Mexico Supreme Court at the end of March.
“We supported the county clerks’ emergency petition to the Supreme Court asking them to change some of the election practices in conjunction with the secretary of state. We filed an amicus brief where we brought on our partners from the New Mexico Native Votes Alliance, from the Navajo Nation, Disability Rights Association and others because we were asking the Supreme Court to grant relief that would allow our election laws that are currently written in a very inflexible way to be flexible to address forcing people to make a choice between exercising their constitutional right to vote and jeopardizing their health to vote in person in the middle of a pandemic,” Ferguson said. “What we found was that our nation’s tribes and pueblos have endured the most historic trauma as communities over the centuries and on top of that in dealing with this election and the pandemic at the same time, they were again the most vulnerable and the most disproportionately affected population here in the state.”
She said when Common Cause initially began their election protection process, the COVID cases had just started blowing up on the Navajo Nation.
“Our indigenous communities represent 11 percent of our state’s population and when we initiated the lawsuit the Navajo Nation had 58 percent of the COVID cases here in New Mexico and that number is staggering. Not only do they deal with all the infrastructure problems that they have been forced to live with because of the inaction of our federal government, but on top of that they have always had to fight for their right to vote which they weren’t granted here in New Mexico until the 70s,” Ferguson said.
She said at the same time, the Navajo Nation was still trying to deal with the same kind of issues that are being seen currently with so many of the racial inequality issues that have been rising to the surface over the last few weeks.
“They have historically been disenfranchised with issues back in the 80s and 90s where they weren’t provided with polling locations that were anywhere near their homes so they might have to drive over 100 miles just to go get a right to vote and they felt there were so many issues around whether or not their ballots were even being counted that it became a societal and cultural norm for them to vote in person,” Ferguson said. “It is literally embedded in the way they do things, because they felt that if they didn’t watch their ballot going into a tabulation box, it wasn’t going to be counted and that it would probably be taken off the reservation and thrown into a dumpster,” she said. “We are lucky enough now to have a secretary of state and a process that has evolved greatly since then, but it doesn’t change the fundamental cultural, societal structure of voting that they have.”
Ferguson said that in the pandemic, there have been a number of tribal lands that had their own tribal officials issuing their own executive orders locking out anyone except for residents of that land to try and protect the health and safety of their communities.
“In our state law, we also have a provision that you cannot put a polling site anywhere that someone in the public can access it. So essentially, any tribal communities who needed to take action in order to protect their community members were then not allowed to have an in-person voting site which forced them to either utilize our mail service or leave their reservation to vote at an outside in-person location,” she said.
Common Cause took that issue to the Supreme Court laying out all those arguments and a very clear path as to how ballots could be mailed out to registered voters around the state, how voting centers could be consolidated and service centers could be created for voters so that folks with any language barrier issues or audio-visual problems that needed assistance would be able to access that.
“And instead our Supreme Court opted to say no – that they would have to mail out an absentee ballot application to every registered voter,” Ferguson said.
She noted that the mail service in New Mexico is notoriously bad with at least two cities sending mail outside the state only to bring it back in.
“With all those delays, the Supreme Court directed the county clerks to do all of this and forced people in those areas as well as our rural areas to engage in the postal service four times. They had to wait for the application, send it back, receive the ballot from clerk and mail it back. And the Supreme Court did that with only a month and a half to go before we had the primary.” Ferguson said.
She said Common Cause knew as soon as the decision came down, that they were going to be in big trouble,” especially when it comes to the folks that are out in those reservations, their mail service sometimes takes two weeks to get to them”.
“By delaying that process and forcing them to participate in a system that is more socialized for people who don’t live in on a reservation, they were being systematically disenfranchised and traumatized again as feeling like an outsider to a country that they are a citizen of and have the rights to vote in or make that decision to compromise their own health,” Ferguson said.
She said with their election protection program, Common Cause hired contractors that were already members and residents of nations, tribes and pueblos around the state – as many as they could find as quickly as they could so that they could spread the word and assist people in getting access to their absentee ballots and finding polling locations that are close to them.
“Even with all of those efforts we saw that ballots came in – and they’re still apparently coming in to many of our county clerks around the state – that were not even able to be counted. We’re probably looking at a minimum of 3,000 ballots that weren’t counted, that were legitimately cast by qualified voters and that is because they just got there too late,” she said.
Ferguson said that is the fault of the Supreme Court’s decision which bottlenecked the process. She also blamed current election laws and said while the Supreme Court didn’t want to be in a position to draft new laws and they wanted the legislature to convene to fix them, they still disenfranchised all of these people during that time.
“We know that there were over 2,000 requests for an absentee ballot that were delivered in large groups in batches in county clerks’ offices the day after the deadline. So, that means that all of those people never even had an opportunity to get an absentee ballot to cast in the first place and if they wanted to vote in the primary they were forced to leave their homes and compromise their health and safety to go vote in person,” she said. “We found that there were not clear communications with many of the voters, who once they found that the mail was running so slow and they did have an absentee ballot, that they would risk it not been counted if they put it back in the mail.”
Ferguson said it wasn’t clear to voters that they didn’t have to go stand in a long line, that they could drop the ballot off at a voting location, and that none of the voters knew that they could skip the line and just go in and drop it off.
“So there were lines going completely around buildings lasting from 45 minutes to two hours in some locations and half the people in line would be standing there with a completed ballot and could have just dropped it off,” she said.
She said seeing the participation in this last election skyrocketing in terms of voter engagement is really exciting.
“We can also assume that we’re going to be looking at the same numbers quadrupling or quintupling going into November because this wasn’t even a presidential primary contested election. These were people who were more interested in our state cases and the presidential candidates had already been determined,” Ferguson said. “We are thrilled by the increased participation by all the qualified voters in the state but we are concerned that if some of these laws aren’t changed, if access is not changed, and if we don’t get ahead of this now, November is going to result in incredibly long lines, very frustrated voters and a number of voters that may not get an opportunity to cast their ballots.”