NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – You’ve likely heard people concerned about “voter fraud” and “election security.” But what do the terms actually mean — and how does New Mexico secure its elections?

To find out, KRQE News 13 reviewed state laws and spoke with New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver. Her office is in charge of administering the state’s elections.

What is a secure election?

“Election security involves a number of areas. It involves cyber security — making sure that our systems and networks and anything computer-related that has to do with voting voter information, casting a vote, or counting the vote are protected,” Toulouse Oliver says. “It also means physical security — making sure that the physical security of our polling locations is being addressed, that our voting machines and ballots, before and after elections, are being protected.”

“It just really encompasses a wide variety of issues,” she adds. “And it also means having laws and processes in place to ensure that only eligible voters are casting a ballot.”

In New Mexico, elections are protected by state laws, called the Election Code. These laws have been around for decades. Although there have been several amendments, or changes, over the years, the key purpose still stands.

According to N.M. Stat. § 1-1-1.1, the purpose is to “secure the secrecy of the ballot, the purity of elections and guard against the abuse of the elective franchise. It is also the purpose of the Election Code to provide for efficient administration and conduct of elections.”

Written into state law are several requirements intended to do just that. These include a requirement that elections use a paper ballot, and certified voting systems, and that “crowding or confusion” is not allowed at polling places.

Who is in charge of election security?

Broadly speaking, the secretary of state is in charge of overseeing state elections and voting. The law gives the secretary of state the ability to do things like inspect and test voting systems and keep voter records safe from theft or damage.

The secretary of state oversees the process to make sure voters have confidence in their elections. The secretary is an elected position. Toulouse Oliver was elected to the office in 2016. She’s running as the incumbent Democratic candidate in the 2022 primary. Audrey Mendonca-Trujillo is running as the Republican candidate, and Mayna Myers is the Libertarian candidate.

“Our democracy is based on having an actual and accurate count of the vote,” Toulouse Oliver says. “The winner wins and the loser loses, and we move forward with a peaceful transition of power, depending on the office. And key to that, of course, is the public being able to trust in that outcome.”

Other officials also play a role in security. During an election, each county puts together an election board. On the board are “election judges” that are tasked with making sure polling places aren’t overcrowded. If things get out of hand, of course, they’re tasked with calling the police to help keep order.

Election challengers also play a role by ensuring each voting machine is zeroed out before polls open and checking that voter signature lists don’t contain any issues.

Watchers help by literally watching the election. They’re tasked with observing the polls to ensure that everything is following the state’s Election Code. And similar to challengers, watchers are allowed to view precinct voter lists to make sure qualified voters cast their votes. They’re also allowed to check voting machines.

Not everyone is allowed to be a watcher or challenger — relatives of candidates, for example, can’t be watchers. But if you’re interested in being a watcher, you must go through an election organization registered with the secretary of state. To be a challenger, you generally need to be appointed by the county chair of a political party. More info can be found here.

Key aspects of security

An important aspect of New Mexico’s elections is that they use paper ballots. Statewide paper ballots were implemented in 2006, after concerns that the 2004 presidential election might have been inaccurate, according to Toulouse Oliver.

“Many states, including New Mexico at that time, used direct recording devices that did not have any sort of paper trail or paper audit trail to verify that the voting machines counted the ballots as the voters intended them to be counted,” she explains. But now, using paper ballots, the state can recount cast votes.

“Paper ballots are unhackable,” she says. “They are a hardcopy record that can be looked at with a human eye, and a group of individuals can look at and make the same determination, come to the same conclusion, about how whoever voted that ballot intended to vote.”

Another aspect of security in New Mexico is that we use so-called “air-gapped” voting machines. This means they aren’t connected to the internet.

“They are never literally never connected to the internet at any point in time. The memory cards that count the ballots are removed by humans, and they are uploaded into another separate air-gapped system to accumulate or tabulate the results on election night,” Toulouse Oliver says.

Beyond those, there’s a whole system of built-in security. That includes running test ballots through the tabulator machines to make sure they’re accurate, locking and sealing access to voter machines so that they can’t be tampered with, and even a post-election canvass process during which the secretary of state’s office checks each precinct to make sure the vote totals add up.

What happens if someone is caught violating election law?

If the secretary of state is aware of a possible violation of the state’s election laws, they’re required to report the issue to either the district attorney or the state’s attorney general for prosecution.

Voting if you’re not qualified, voting more than once in the same election, or voting using someone else’s name is generally charged with a fourth degree felony. Trying to bribe someone to vote for a certain candidate is also punishable by a felony charge. Intimidating a voter — such as threatening to harm someone to prevent them from voting — is likewise a felony offense.

Even simply disturbing or creating disorder at a polling place is illegal. As such, interfering with the conduct of an election could lead to a petty misdemeanor charge.

Has anyone ever committed voter fraud in New Mexico?

Yes. Although cases aren’t too common, there are a few examples of known voter fraud in recent New Mexico history. In one interesting example, one New Mexican actually admitted to committing voter fraud because they were frustrated by the fact that the state doesn’t require most voters to show an ID at the polls.

According to the criminal complaint, here’s what happened: In October of 2014, Eugene Victor cast a ballot in the Corrales Senior Center. But, he did so using his son’s name.

In New Mexico, you have to provide a copy of your current photo ID, like a driver’s license number, or to prove your residency with something like a current utility bill when you first register to vote. But then after that, at most state polls, you’re simply asked to provide verbal or written confirmation of who you are.

Victor admitted to also voting under his own name the day before voting using his son’s name, according to the criminal complaint. Afterward, he turned himself in.

“What’s important to emphasize is that while voter fraud is not zero, it’s not much more than zero. It is extremely rare,” Toulouse Oliver says. “The reason we don’t see these things happen very often is because they’re what we call ‘high risk, low reward crimes.'”

After all, even just voting under someone else’s name is a felony. “And the likelihood of that one extra vote being cast making a difference in the outcome of an election is extremely low,” she says.

Has election security improved over time?

Toulouse Oliver says that the state is constantly working to improve election security. She says this is particularly true when it comes to election-related cybersecurity.

“There are constantly emerging new threats to the election process,” she says. “And so, we are doing a number of things on the cybersecurity front. We work very closely with our federal and state partners to protect the cybersecurity of our systems, as well as the physical security again of our voting environments and any location where voting machines or ballots are being stored or used or held.”

The secretary of state has an election security team that regularly does things like review documentation and data-handling processes. They also work to prevent computer and network hacking, according to the secretary of state’s office.

What can you do if I suspect voter fraud?

Even if you aren’t an election watcher or challenger, you can still help keep the voting process fair and accurate. Ordinary citizens can file concerns and complaints with the state or with the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).

“Voters can make complaints or report concerns about the election process directly to our office,” Toulouse Oliver says. “They can do so by calling our office directly, they can do so by emailing us.”

“If folks are really concerned and they don’t necessarily want to contact our office, the FBI also has an election crimes unit here in New Mexico. And so if you call the local New Mexico FBI office, you can also report any potential election crimes there as well,” she adds.

Where can you find more information on voting security?

The current Secretary of State, Maggie Toulouse Oliver, recently launched a webpage that addresses some common rumors about voting. The site can be accessed by clicking this link.

For information on federal election security, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has a “rumor vs. reality” webpage.