False election claims overwhelm local efforts to push back

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Torrance County Commission Chairman Ryan Schwebach presides over a board meeting in Estancia, N.M., Sept. 14 , 2022. After a backlash this summer over the countys certification of its primary results, Schwebach surveyed county residents who dont attend public meetings. But even those who keep quiet told Schwebach they werent sure if they could trust election results. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

ESTANCIA, N.M. – Republican county commissioners in this swath of ranching country in New Mexico’s high desert have tried everything they can think of to persuade voters their elections are secure.

They approved hand-counting of ballots from the primary election in their rural county, encouraged the public to observe security testing of ballot machines and tasked their county manager with overseeing those efforts to make sure they ran smoothly. None of that seems enough.

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Here and elsewhere, Republicans as well as Democrats are paying a price for former President Donald Trump's relentless complaints and false claims about the 2020 election he lost.

Many Torrance County voters still don’t trust voting machines or election tallies, a conspiracy-fueled lack of faith that persists in rural areas across the U.S. Just weeks before consequential midterm elections, such widespread skepticism suggests that no matter the outcome, many Americans may not accept the results.

“Confidence that that vote is accurately counted and tabulated is not there,” said Ryan Schwebach, a grain farmer who is chairman of the three-member, all-Republican Torrance County Board of County Commissioners.

After a backlash this summer over the county’s certification of its primary results, Schwebach surveyed county residents who don’t attend public meetings. They, too, told him they weren’t sure they could trust election results.

“It’s the overall system that comes into question,” he said. “So how do you challenge that, how do you get your answers?”

The belief that voting machines are being manipulated to sway the outcome of races is being promoted by Trump and his allies, many of whom have been spreading conspiracy theories throughout the country for nearly two years.

Their messages have penetrated deeply into the Republican Party, despite no evidence of manipulation or widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election. That finding has been supported by multiple reviews in battleground states, by judges who have rejected dozens of court cases, by Trump’s own Department of Justice and top officials in his administration.

The distrust erupted in Torrance County earlier this year, as commissioners were set to certify the results from the state’s June 7 primary. Torrance was among a handful of rural New Mexico counties that considered delaying certification as crowds gave voice to conspiracy theories surrounding voting equipment.

Angry residents denounced the results and the commissioners’ certification at a meeting -- a vote taken after the county elections clerk reported that the local election was secure and accurate. Those in the audience hurled insults at the commissioners, calling them “cowards,” “traitors” and “rubber stamp puppets.”

The commissioners responded to the vitriol by taking several unprecedented steps in an attempt to restore trust in voting and ballot counting.

They ordered an independent recount of primary election results by hand and assigned the county manager to recruit veteran poll workers and volunteers for two days of eye-straining efforts to sort and tally ballot images, with additional recounts. They also had her oversee testing and certification of the county’s vote tabulators.

“I’m kind of pioneering this, and I’m sure I’m not going to be perfect in it, but I can tell you that I’m trying,” said Janice Barela, the county manager overseeing the recount. “How do you know if it’s the hand tally that’s right? How do you know if it’s a tabulator that’s right? … What I’d like to see in all of this is the election process work.”

It’s not clear whether her efforts will satisfy local doubts about the accuracy of elections — or add to them.

Bill Mendenhall, a registered Republican nearing retirement age, said anger still smolders in the community over the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Trump won two-thirds of the vote in Torrance County.

“I don’t think it burns that hot, but it does burn,” said Mendenhall, a correctional officer at the maximum-security Penitentiary of New Mexico. He was tending to a small herd of goats beneath an old windmill on his 18-acre ranch. “Of the people I work with, 90% of them is angry. A lot of people think that Trump was cheated.”

Brady Ness, a 37-year-old manager of a car dealership who grew up on a ranch in Estancia, said he does not trust Dominion Voting Systems machines that are used to tally paper ballots across New Mexico. The machines are a frequent target of conspiracy theories, and Ness hopes to see a transition to hand counting in future elections, though current state law mandates machine tallies.

“Even if they’re Democrats or people I don’t like or get along with, I would trust them over machines,” Ness said.

He recently left the Republican Party amid profound frustration with the state and federal governments, which he says are not serving the needs of the people.

“I wouldn’t be shocked if we didn’t have a general election,” he said. “I think things in this country are falling apart very quickly.”

At the same time, Bill Peifer, a local treasurer for the Democratic Party, warns that not everyone who questions the elections may have the same motive.

“Some of the people casting doubt I think honestly don’t trust the machines,” he said. “And there are others who just want to make a mess.”

The dour outlook in the county of 15,000 has been propelled by the same forces at work in many other states. In New Mexico, doubts about the 2020 election were fueled by a lawsuit from Trump’s campaign and a fake set of electors willing to certify him.

More recently, an assortment of local and out-of-state Trump allies have held forums throughout the state promoting conspiracy theories, including former White House strategist Steve Bannon, MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell and the Republican nominee for secretary of state, Audrey Trujillo.

At the forefront is David Clements, a New Mexico-based former prosecutor and former college professor. At conventions, church gatherings and local forums, he advocates for eliminating electronic election equipment and exonerating many of the defendants charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

At a presentation last month to about 60 people at a public library in Albuquerque, Clements described voting equipment in New Mexico as intentionally vulnerable to fraud and painted many county officials as complicit.

“We’re never going to stop the bleeding unless we get rid of these machines,” he said. “It’s a foundational issue.”

Deep-seated distrust in elections has inspired independent challengers in the November general elections for the seats held by Schwebach and Commissioner Kevin McCall. Both of their opponents have stated that Joe Biden was not legitimately elected president.

McCall is seeking re-election while working long hours at his pumpkin farm, which features a haunted house for Halloween and employs more than 400 seasonal workers.

“We care,” he said in a recent interview. “We put Janice on that to be the one sole job, to evaluate and provide trust in the election.”

He expressed exasperation that the efforts do not seem to have paid off so far.

“If they really want to replace me, replace me,” he said. “I’m not doing this for the money.”

The county released results on Thursday from its hand count of primary ballots, showing discrepancies between those tallies and the machine count in June, though not enough to change individual races.

Experts say machine tabulators have been shown to be more accurate than hand counts, which are susceptible to human error. Nevertheless, the results were greeted as vindication by doubters.

“While the numbers are new information, the fact that machines are untrustworthy is not new,” declared Jennette Hunt of Estancia.


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