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Election clerks in New Mexico are feeling besieged by false claims and criticism

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Days after an intruder attacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband in their house, federal authorities have issued an internal warning, obtained by NPR, of a heightened threat environment during the midterm elections. Misinformation about election security continues to spread. In New Mexico, some activists and officials have been convinced by people touting false claims about voting machines, and it's having a huge impact on local election administrators, as Alice Fordham of member station KUNM reports.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Over the summer, I went to what's known as election school in Albuquerque, where county clerks get preelection training. Some of it is regular old bureaucracy.

MAGGIE TOULOUSE OLIVER: Procedures or forms or best practices.

FORDHAM: But Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver says these days, some of it's security training in case of threats or actual violence. And there's something else new.

TOULOUSE OLIVER: We're also talking about things like stress management - right? - because everyone's going through a lot right now.

FORDHAM: County clerks run elections. You could say they're on the front line of democracy, and their lives have changed.

YVONNE OTERO: After 2020, it just - it's just been complete chaos. Like, everything seemed to be peaceful. Nobody had any issues. There wasn't complaints from this side or that side.

FORDHAM: This is Yvonne Otero. She's a Republican. She's county clerk in Torrance County, which is rural and conservative. She's lived there all her life but says it sometimes feels like her community has turned against her.

OTERO: Like, they're at every single commission meeting. And they're, you know, this is wrong and this is this. And why are you doing this? And you shouldn't be doing this.

FORDHAM: Her staff come in for criticism, too, and not just at work.

OTERO: We go out to the stores, and they follow us so they can start talking to us.

FORDHAM: New Mexico's top officials forcefully rebut false claims that elections aren't secure, but plenty of regular people and some county-level officials believe those claims, as becomes clear during public comment when I go to a county commission meeting in Torrance.

ROBERT WAGNER: Our elections have a lack of integrity, and there's a group of us and - we're citizen auditors. We've been looking through things of concern that we found.

FORDHAM: This is Rob Wagner. When I ask about those concerns, some familiar names come up.

WAGNER: So Erin and David Clements came and did a presentation here. And in talking to them in detail about their concerns, there are many steps of the election process that are vulnerable to attack.

FORDHAM: David Clements was a professor at New Mexico State University until he was fired for refusing to vaccinate or mask. Now he and his wife, Erin, travel the state and beyond giving presentations that wrongly convince people that, for instance, voting machines are hackable. They've gained influence all across the state and gave a presentation in a Torrance commission meeting in May.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID CLEMENTS: The clerks aren't machine experts. If you were to crack open the motherboard, they're not going to be able to tell you what microchip does what.

FORDHAM: Commissioner Ryan Schwebach says he's trying to alleviate widespread concerns about election security, so he granted a constituent request to have the Clementses present.

RYAN SCHWEBACH: And the last thing we want to do is disrupt the election and disenfranchise voters and all the stuff you hear on the media. That's not the goal. The goal is to simply show that our election system is accurate.

FORDHAM: Still, the commissioners and county staff now scrutinize the county clerk more closely. After monitoring the process of certifying vote counting machines, the county manager complained to the secretary of state's office that the clerk hadn't followed procedure. The secretary of state's office gave guidance to redo the process, but the commission filed a complaint against Otero with the attorney general, requesting to remove her from her position. The complaint also includes allegations of inappropriate workplace behavior. Otero didn't respond to requests for comment, but when I spoke to her back in summer, even then, some days she said she didn't want to do the job.

OTERO: I didn't run for this. I didn't - you know, 'cause it wasn't like this. I didn't have all this drama. I didn't have all this stress, being attacked - not, like, physically, but verbally.

FORDHAM: County clerks across New Mexico say they feel under pressure. Amanda Lopez Askin in the city of Las Cruces has been criticized by Republican officials and the public.

AMANDA LOPEZ ASKIN: I've had comments made about my appearance. I've been accused of being a socialist. I've had my education questioned, my commitment to my community.

FORDHAM: A member of her staff quit, partly because of a deluge of public information requests and other recent burden on local officials. And clerks are bracing for the midterms to be tough. State officials issued an advisory about intimidation at polling stations and raised concerns about election deniers registering as poll challengers.

LOPEZ ASKIN: And then we're going to move forward because that's our job. We have no other choice. Does that mean that I'm not aware that there's these concentrated plans to disrupt? Of course. We all know that. But it doesn't stop any of us from moving forward.

FORDHAM: New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver worries some clerks might not run for reelection.

TOULOUSE OLIVER: A lot of them are sort of wondering about their futures, whether, you know, they're going to stick around.

FORDHAM: After the primaries, three counties saw delays and protests around certifying results. The challenges of being county clerk are unlikely to end on election day.

For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.