Gov. Susana Martinez received plaudits for delivering pizza and encouragement to voters who stood in long lines on Election Night in Rio Rancho. But in the border town of Chaparral, nonpartisan volunteers who offered stranded voters water, food and chairs were threatened with arrest. Eight uniformed officers of the Otero County Sheriff’s Office put up yellow crime-scene tape around the Chaparral polling place. Then they intimidated volunteers whose only mission was to make sure voters could stick it out long enough to exercise their right to cast a ballot, said Mariaelena Johnson of the community group New Mexico Café. Johnson turned into the star witness Saturday during a legislative hearing on Election Night problems in Sandoval and Otero counties. Almost nobody from Sandoval, home of the growing city of Rio Rancho, showed up. But Johnson and a dozen more people from southern New Mexico told of a horror show in Chaparral.
Chaparral is in two counties, Dona Ana and Otero. It also is a growing community with about 15,000 people, 85 percent of whom are Hispanic. The polling place in the Otero section of Chaparral became a place of confrontation on Election Day. “The voting judge called the police on us,” Johnson told the committee. Actually, it was the Otero sheriff that was summoned by election judge Connie Mayes. Johnson said the mere presence of New Mexico Café volunteers, all trained in the law on how to assist voters who asked for help, caused Mayes to try to have them arrested.
Robyn Holmes, who was the Otero County clerk during the election, told a different story. Reached by telephone at her home, Holmes said community volunteers outside the Chaparral precinct were loud and unruly, necessitating a sheriff’s presence to keep the peace. “You’ve got to have some kind of crowd control,” Holmes said.
On Election Night, Holmes was 85 miles from Chaparral in the Otero County seat of Alamogordo. She said she knew of disruptive forces at the polling place based on what two sheriff’s deputies and her precinct workers told her. None of Holmes’ claims are true, Johnson said.