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Essential Politics: New Mexico shows Trump’s false voter fraud conspiracy is not going away

A man in a cowboy hat stands outside a courthouse
Otero County, N.M., Commissioner Couy Griffin stands outside federal court after receiving a verdict in his trial in March for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. He was one of three county officials who initially refused to certify the June 7 primary election results.
(Associated Press)

The election certification process is meant to be pretty straightforward. Local officials are generally expected to certify votes, unless there are serious discrepancies.

But this month, in rural and heavily Republican Otero County, N.M., three commissioners refused to take such action. In doing so, they threw into doubt the votes of thousands of people.

Their reasoning for taking such a drastic step?

Unfounded fears of voter fraud.

Or at least, that’s what they’ve claimed (without a shred of evidence).

The commission echoed long-debunked allegations that then-President Trump made after losing his bid for reelection to Joe Biden in 2020. Those false claims motivated his supporters to violently disrupt Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, in the hopes of preventing lawmakers from cementing Biden’s electoral college victory. There was hope that the deadly insurrection would prompt a reckoning about such outlandish conspiracy theories and that, with time, they would fade away. But that has not been the case.

All the proof you need is what happened in Otero County.

Hello besties, I’m Erin B. Logan, a reporter with the L.A. Times. I cover the Biden-Harris administration. Today, we will discuss New Mexico’s elections, the resilience of conspiracy theories and the health of American democracy.

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Why did officials in a dark-red county claim fraud?

The controversy began when all three Otero commissioners — elected to govern the county — decided to vote against certifying the vote. The three commissioners — Couy Griffin, Gerald Matherly and Vickie Marquardt, all Republicans — did not level specific allegations that the results of the June 7 GOP and Democratic primary races were tainted.

Instead, they refused to certify the results over general concerns with a few votes and the efficacy of the election machines run by Dominion Voting Systems. During his attempt to overturn his election, Trump embraced an elaborate conspiracy theory in which Dominion’s voting machines changed votes, ensuring Biden won.

The conspiracy theories are too ridiculous to reiterate here. If you want to learn more, you can read here.

Though the three commissioners could not point to a specific problem with the machines, they said their gut-level concerns were enough to refuse to certify the results, jettisoning about 7,300 votes and going against the recommendation of the county clerk.

(State law requires a simple majority of the three-person commission to certify elections.)

During a public meeting last week, Marquardt said she did “not trust these machines.”

“I just don’t think in my heart that they can’t be manipulated,” Marquardt said.

Marquardt’s sentiment was echoed by Griffin, the founder of Cowboys for Trump who was recently sentenced to two weeks in jail for his involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Matherly also expressed concern and signaled he would vote with his colleagues, despite New Mexico’s Supreme Court ordering the commission to certify election results.

New Mexico’s Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver also weighed in by threatening a criminal referral to the state’s attorney general and by suing the commission. In a statement, Toulouse Oliver, the state’s top elections officer, said the post-election “process is a key component of how we maintain our high levels of election integrity in New Mexico and the Otero County Commission is flaunting that process by appeasing unfounded conspiracy theories and potentially nullifying the votes of every Otero County voter who participated in the Primary.”

Late Friday, two of the GOP commissioners — Matherly and Marquadt — changed their votes, ensuring the election was certified.

Matherly said during a Friday public meeting that the commission had “no proven black and white fact” to legally stall the process. Marquardt said her yes vote was essentially a “rubber stamp” and that she did it to avoid prosecution. Griffin, who voted by phone, said his no vote “isn’t based on any evidence.”

“It’s not based on any facts. It’s only based on my gut feeling and my own intuition,” said Griffin. “And that’s all I need.”

Matherly, Marquardt and Griffin did not respond to requests for comment.

Stephanie Walstrom, a spokeswoman for Dominion Voting Systems, in a statement said the debacle in Otero “is yet another example of how lies about Dominion have damaged our company and diminished the public’s faith in elections.” Dominion is suing multiple companies, including Fox News and Newsmax, and individuals for defamation for spreading such false claims.

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Otero County is no stranger to voter fraud claims

In 2018, Republican Yvette Herrell alleged that she had lost her race to represent a House district that included Otero to a Democrat due to voter fraud. Herrell claimed absentee ballots, which overrode her lead, were irregular. Her campaign, which did not respond to a request for comment, said it had collected “over 100 documented complaints” and even issued a 44-page report to back up Herrell’s claims.

In campaign ads during a 2020 rematch, months before Trump’s conspiracy theory gained national prominence, Herrell claimed she had actually won the 2018 election “but the Democrats took it away.”

“If liberals can’t beat us, they’ll cheat us,” she said in a Facebook ad. After Trump lost, Herrell told Fox News she could empathize with Trump.

“It just makes me sick because I know exactly what he’s going through,” she reportedly said. “Same thing, different scale.”

Harrell won her 2020 rematch by fewer than 20,000 votes over the incumbent, now-former Rep. Xochitl Torres Small.

What does this mean for future elections?

Lonna Atkeson, a political scientist and director of the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University, said such unfounded accusations undermine democracy, especially when elections officials refuse to follow the legal process when they have no evidence of actual fraud.

Atkeson said it would be “worrisome” if election officials in New Mexico or other states took similar action, particularly in a presidential election, because it could result in electoral chaos.

“If a state didn’t turn in their electors or something, are they just not counted? Or would they just exclude those results,” she said.

Such a crisis would create “a serious break in institutional trust,” Atkeson said.

She added it was normal for voters to mistrust leaders, particularly when they oppose policies and ideologies. But when voters lose faith in the mechanics by which these leaders are elected, “the whole foundation of democratic government and accountability collapses.”

“It only takes a few people in positions of power or authority to potentially wreak havoc on the process,” Atkeson said.

The controversy in Otero drew the attention of lawmakers in Washington during a special committee‘s hearings into the insurrection. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the committee’s chairman, on Tuesday expressed concerns about the Republican commissioners’ actions and what it might forebode for future elections.

“Their oath to the people they serve will take a backseat to their commitment to the big lie,” he said. “If that happens, who will make sure our institutions don’t break under the pressure? We won’t have close calls. We will have a catastrophe.”

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The view from Washington

— Republican state legislators and elected officials detailed Tuesday the intense pressure they faced from President Trump and his lawyers to subvert the will of voters and to persuade lawmakers to submit false slates of electors backing him to Congress, Times writer Sarah D. Wire reported. Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers said Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani pointed out in multiple phone calls that they were both Republicans and said that Bowers had legal authority in Arizona to remove Biden electors and replace them. The committee also showed a video detailing how Trump’s plan depended on legislatures in multiple states adopting alternate electors.

— The Senate voted to start debate on a bipartisan effort to combat gun violence, a sign of progress for what could be the most substantial gun policy to get through Congress in more than three decades, Times writer Jennifer Haberkorn reported. The procedural vote was approved 64 to 34, with 14 Republicans joining all Democrats to advance the bill and two Republicans not voting.

— President Biden will ask Congress today to suspend the federal gas tax through September, a move that could shave off 18 cents per gallon to help consumers battling record prices at the pump, senior administration officials said. The request to suspend the gas tax comes as Biden and Democrats are facing a tough midterm election season. Here’s more from my report.

— The Supreme Court extended its support for religious schools, ruling that parents who send their children to such institutions have a right to tuition aid if the state provides it for other private schools, Times writer David G. Savage reported. The 6-3 decision could open the door to school systems permitting religious institutions to run publicly funded charter schools. Previously the high court had said that giving public funds to church schools violated the 1st Amendment’s ban on an “establishment of religion.” But the court’s conservative majority has in recent years steadily chipped away at that doctrine.

— British filmmaker Alex Holder complied with a subpoena to turn over to the House select committee investigating the insurrection documentary footage he filmed during the final six weeks of Trump’s reelection campaign, along with footage of the attack on the Capitol, Times writer Sarah D. Wire reported. The footage includes exclusive interviews with President Trump, his children Ivanka, Eric and Don Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as Vice President Mike Pence.

The view from California

— With steep gasoline prices stinging Californians, Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon on Monday announced a legislative inquiry to determine if oil companies are “ripping off” drivers, Times writer Phil Willon reported. California’s highest-in-the nation fuel prices remain a volatile political issue in the midst of an election year.

— A controversial bill to repeal a provision of California law that prohibits loitering with the intent to sell sex is on its way to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, nine months after it passed the Legislature, according to Times writer Hannah Wiley. The bill would rescind the misdemeanor law against loitering in public for the purpose of engaging in prostitution. Advocates for the measure argued that law enforcement uses the state’s loitering rules to disproportionately target Black, brown and transgender people. Opponents have said the bill would remove a critical tool to stop sex trafficking, especially of children, and will hamstring victim outreach efforts.

The view from the campaign trail

Katie Britt has won the Republican Senate nomination in Alabama, defeating six-term U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks in a primary runoff after former President Trump took the unusual step of switching his endorsement.

— Rep. Karen Bass pulled ahead of rival Rick Caruso in the primary election for Los Angeles mayor on Tuesday after a surge of vote-by-mail ballots boosted the congresswoman and several other progressive candidates, Times writer Dakota Smith reported. Over the last week, a flood of late-arriving mail ballots propelled left-of-center candidates in races for mayor, city attorney and multiple council seats. The June 7 election was the first at City Hall since a new state law ensured that every voter received a ballot in the mail, a process designed to bring in more voters and focus less on a single day of in-person voting.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter for updates about my adorable dog Kacey and to share pictures of your adorable furbabies with me at erin.logan@latimes.com.

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