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New Mexico braces for confrontational poll watchers

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's top elections regulator said Wednesday that precautions are being taken to guard against the possibility of deliberate disruptions by party-appointed poll challengers and watchers in the ongoing general election.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said at a news briefing that she is aware of efforts to recruit poll challengers by people who believe the election process is rigged and may want to interfere.

"Maybe they feel like at the end of the day, even if they ultimately get removed, that they've been able to slow down the process, cause folks to get discouraged," Toulouse Oliver said. "As long as a challenger is following the rules and not obstructing the election process and not interposing challenges in bad faith, they can stay there the entire process. But when we start seeing this other behavior, that's when they have to go."

At the same time, Toulouse Oliver has encouraged people with concerns about the integrity of elections to volunteer and work at the polls under oath. She said hundreds of new poll workers have responded.

Poll challengers and watchers have traditionally functioned as an essential element of electoral transparency at polling locations, acting as the eyes and ears of major political parties to help ensure that the mechanics of voting are administered fairly and accurately.

Election officials in several states are raising concerns this year about a surge of election-conspiracy believers who are signing up for those positions, with training by people who have propagated the lie spread by former President Donald Trump and his allies that the 2020 presidential election was riddled with fraud.

Absentee and limited early voting is underway across New Mexico in the general election that culminates on Nov. 8, with a long list of statewide offices in contention, including governor.

Toulouse Oliver said poll workers and county clerks are trained and empowered to respond to disruptive behavior, including delay tactics. She said a presiding poll judge can call on law enforcement agencies to remove a poll challenger or watcher not only for public safety concerns but also behavior that interferes with the ability to carry out duties at a polling place.

"While a challenger or a watcher or observer are completely allowed to ask a question of the poll officials about what they're observing, they are not allowed to dominate that individual's time," Toulouse Oliver said. "They are not allowed to interpose challenges without a basis for that challenge."

Nearly 37,000 ballots have been cast statewide as of Tuesday. Registered Democrats accounted for about 56% of ballots cast.

Certification of New Mexico's primary election in June was nearly derailed by officials in a handful of counties amid voter anger and distrust fueled by unproven conspiracies about vote-counting equipment and election procedures.

Toulouse Oliver is seeking reelection against Republican nominee Audrey Trujillo, a small business owner from Corrales who is campaigning for large-scale changes to elections as part of the America First Secretary of State Coalition.

In the run-up to the election, Toulouse Oliver said her office is monitoring mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook for misinformation about elections and voting.

She said election officials are prepared to debunk and request the removal of misleading posts, and urged residents not to rely on "right-wing extremist" platforms for election information.