SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The initial refusal by a rural New Mexico county to confirm its primary election results sent ripples across the country last week, a symbol of how even the most elementary functions of democracy have become politicized pressure points amidst of the maelstrom of lies emerging from the 2020 presidential election result.
When the Otero County Commission finally gave in, one question lingered: Why New Mexico, a state that was not a political battleground and where Joe Biden easily defeated Donald Trump two years ago?
The seeds of the short-lived electoral crisis, which ended in a showdown with the secretary of state and an order from the New Mexico Supreme Court, had been sown months earlier when David Clements, a prominent lawyer in conservative circles, began promoting conspiracy theories and false claims about the last presidential election, which dominated political debate in the heavily Republican county.
But it’s not just Otero County where the local electoral administration is in the crosshairs of conspiracy theorists, and it’s not just Clements involved in the effort.
Across the country, supporters and allies of former President Donald Trump have been meeting with local officials — sowing doubts about the 2020 election, seeking access to voting equipment and urging changes that would upend election administration in their counties. The effort has resulted in security breaches at voting machines and, in New Mexico, chaos surrounding what has been a routine task in the past.
“You’ve seen quite a number of people — some sincere, some perhaps not so sincere — rushing to comply with demands to provide evidence of the fraud that Trump created,” said David Levine, a former election official who is now a member of the Alliance for the Safeguarding of Democracy.
There was no widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election that could have changed the outcome.
Even before the November 3, 2020 election, Trump told his supporters that cheating was the only way to lose re-election, citing mainly – and without evidence – the expansion of absentee voting during the pandemic.
In the months since, there has been no evidence to support the claims. They were dismissed by dozens of judges, by Trump’s then-attorney general, and by a coalition of federal, state election and cybersecurity officials who called the 2020 vote the “safest” in US history.
That hasn’t stopped the spread of false claims, fueled by a group of Trump supporters who appear at many of the same events and share regularly.
Clements, a former assistant district attorney for southern New Mexico and former economics professor at New Mexico State University, has traveled the country speaking with local government agencies, at conservative conventions and with church groups. He was at last year’s “cyber symposium” hosted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a key Trump ally who has been trying to prove voting machines were somehow rigged in Biden’s favour.
Clement’s popular social media feed on Telegram often interweaves pronouncements about democracy with scripture and prayer. This includes video chats with like-minded people.
In a March video, Clements chatted with Jim Marchant, a Nevada Trump loyalist who claims elections have long been rigged. Marchant recently won the Republican primary for Secretary of State, Nevada’s top election spot. He was a key organizer this year of a group of “America First” candidates who either deny the outcome of the 2020 presidential election or promote the idea that US elections are corrupt.
In the video, Clements and Marchant discuss a “district commission strategy” of pressuring local officials to get rid of the “cheater” machines so that all ballots are not only hand-cast but also hand-counted. Election experts say manually counting ballots is not only less accurate, it’s also extremely labor-intensive and can delay results by weeks, if not months. They also say it is unnecessary as voting machines are tested before and after elections to ensure ballots are read and counted correctly.
A day earlier, county officials in Nye County, Nevada, voted not to have the county clerk use ballots in the upcoming November election. The employee is against the move and has decided to retire after elementary school. Marchant was among those who urged the commissioners to take the step.
“It was the first domino to fall so we could get back to fair and transparent elections here in the country,” Marchant told Clements. “And we will do it with many more counties here in Nevada, and hopefully this will encourage others in other states to do the same.”
Clements was excited by the development and vowed to urge counties in his home state of New Mexico, where he once sought the Republican nomination for the US Senate, to do the same.
“Shouldn’t the commissioners care if I trust the system or not?” Clements told Marchant. “I love how you cut through all the noise.”
This week, Clements is scheduled to perform at an event in Louisiana with Douglas Frank, another Lindell associate who has been touring the country meeting with state and local officials. In May 2021, Frank met with members of the Ohio Secretary of State’s office who offered to review their voting procedures and boasted of having worked with county officials in 22 states.
“You either join our team and we can review it together and prove there is no wrongdoing, or you can oppose us,” Frank told agency staff, according to an audio recording. The office did not accept the offer.
For months, Clement has been pushing Republican-leaning counties in New Mexico to launch partisan reviews of the 2020 election, similar to the much-maligned effort in Arizona that was coordinated by Republicans in a chamber of the state legislature. In Otero County, which Trump won by a wide margin, Clements and his wife Erin conducted an informal and unpaid review of the county’s 2020 election procedures.
The result was a series of hour-long presentations to the district commission about unproven vulnerabilities in vote counting machines and voter registration templates. The Clements, who list Las Cruces as their place of residence, did not respond to requests for interviews.
Earlier this month, as Otero County commissioners debated whether to end the use of ballots, the couple made another presentation. It prompted a rebuttal from Otero County Clerk Robyn Holmes.
“There’s a lot of things they’ve found that they’re saying that aren’t true,” Holmes said.
Nonetheless, the commissioners voted to end the use of ballot tabs ahead of the November election.
Clements was among those who urged Otero County commissioners against certification of the June 7 primary and repeated conspiracy theories about voting equipment dating back to the days immediately after the 2020 election. Holmes, the clerk, said the primary went through with no problems.
Clements also went to Torrance County, another conservative New Mexico stronghold, to urge commissioners to defy authorities and refuse to certify their main findings. During last Friday’s meeting, the crowd berated the commissioners with insults of “traitors” and “cowards” before voting – unanimously – to confirm the findings.
Election officials and pundits have expressed concern that local certifying agencies in other states susceptible to voting machine conspiracy theories could be inspired to follow Otero County’s example, which could wreak havoc with election results.
Nevada counties have until Friday to sign off the results of the June 14 state primary. Nye County commissioners, who want to end the use of ballots, are scheduled to meet Friday to consider certification. They have not said publicly what they intend to do.
Cassidy reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Ken Ritter in Las Vegas; Julie Carr Smyth of Columbus, Ohio; and Scott Sonner of Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.