Santa Fe, New Mexico
A rural New Mexico county’s initial refusal to certify its primary election results sent ripples across the country last week, a symbol of how even the most basic functions of democracy have turned into politicized pressure points amid the swirl of lies emanating from the results of the 2020 presidential election.
After the Otero County Commission finally relented, one question persisted: Why New Mexico, the state that wasn’t a political battleground and where Joe Biden easily beat Donald Trump two years ago?
The seeds of a short-lived electoral crisis, which ended amid a standoff with the Secretary of State and a New Mexico Supreme Court order, were planted months earlier, when David Clements, a lawyer who had gained fame in conservative circles, and others began fomenting conspiracy theories and false allegations about The last presidential election that dominated the political debate in a Republican-majority county.
But it’s not just Otero County where the local election department is in the crosshairs of conspiracy theories, nor is Clements alone in the effort.
Across the country, supporters of former President Donald Trump and his allies have been meeting with local officials — raising doubts about the 2020 election, seeking access to voting equipment and lobbying for changes that would upend the election management of their counties. This effort has led to security breaches of voting equipment and, in New Mexico, chaos surrounding what has historically been a routine mission.
said David Levine, a former electoral official who is now a fellow at Amnesty International, the Coalition for Democracy.
There was no widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election that could have altered the outcome.
Even before the November 3, 2020 election, Trump was telling his supporters that fraud was the only way he could lose his reelection, often citing—and without evidence—the expansion of mail-in voting during the pandemic.
In the months that followed, there was no evidence to support these claims. They were fired by dozens of judges, Trump’s attorney general at the time, and by a coalition of federal and state election and cybersecurity officials who called the 2020 vote “the safest” in US history.
That hasn’t stopped the false allegations from spreading, led by a group of Trump supporters who appear at many of the same events and interact with each other regularly.
Clements, a former assistant attorney general for Southern New Mexico and a former business professor at New Mexico State University, has traveled the country to speak with local government boards, at conservative conferences and to church groups. It was at last year’s “electronic forum” that Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow, a key Trump ally sought to prove that voting machines were somehow manipulated in Biden’s favour.
Clements’ popular social media telegram often feeds on statements about democracy with scripture and prayer. It also includes video chats with like-minded people.
In a video clip from March, Clements spoke with Jim Marchant, a Trump loyalist from Nevada, who claims the election has long been rigged. Marchant recently won the Republican primary for Secretary of State, the highest elective office in Nevada. He has been a lead organizer for a group of “America First” candidates this year who either deny the outcome of the 2020 presidential election or promote the idea that elections in the United States are corrupt.
In the video, Clements and Marchant discuss a “county committee strategy” that includes pressuring local officials to get rid of “cheating” machines so that all ballots are not only cast manually, but are also manually counted. Election experts say that manual counting of ballot papers is not only less accurate but is very labour-intensive, potentially delaying results for weeks if not months. They also say it is unnecessary because voting equipment is tested before and after elections to ensure that ballots are read and counted correctly.
The day before, county officials in Nye County, Nevada, voted to ask the county clerk not to use polling tables in the upcoming November elections. The writer opposes this move and has decided to retire after the primaries. Marchant was among those urging the commissioners to take the step.
“It was the first domino to fall to allow us to return to a fair and transparent election here in the country,” Marchant told Clements. “And we’re going to do this with many counties here in Nevada, and hopefully that will encourage others in other states to do the same.”
Clements was excited about the development and promised to push counties to do the same in his home state of New Mexico, where he once sought the Republican nomination for the US Senate.
“Shouldn’t the commissioners care whether or not I trust the system?” Clements told Marchant. “I love the way you cut out all the noise.”
This week, Clements is scheduled to appear at an event in Louisiana with Douglas Frank, another Lyndell colleague who has been traveling across the country to meet with state and local officials. In May 2021, Frank met with members of the Ohio Secretary of State’s office offering to scrutinize voting procedures, boasting that he’s working with county officials in 22 states.
“Either you come to our team and we can audit it together and show there are 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, Clements has been pressing Republican-leaning counties in New Mexico to launch partisan reviews of the 2020 elections, similar to shady efforts in Arizona that Republicans coordinated in a single chamber of the state legislature. In Otero County, which Trump won by a wide margin, Clements and his wife, Erin, conducted an informal, unpaid review of the county’s 2020 election procedures.
The result was a series of hours-long presentations before the district commission about unproven weaknesses in vote-counting machines and patterns of voter registration activity. The Clements, who have listed Las Cruces as their residence, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Earlier this month, when Otero County commissioners were considering whether they should stop using ballot tables, the pair once again gave a presentation. It prompted a rebuttal from Otero County writer Robin Holmes.
“There are a lot of things they have found, which they say are not true,” Holmes said.
However, the commissioners – led by Coy Griffin, co-founder of “Cowboys for Trump,” who was convicted of entering banned US Capitol territory during the January 6 rebellion – voted to stop using polling tables ahead of the November elections.
Clements was among those urging Otero County commissioners not to certify the initial results on June 7, and reiterated conspiracy theories about voting equipment dating back to the days immediately following the 2020 election. Writer Holmes said the primaries were held without problems.
Clements also went to Torrance County, another conservative stronghold in New Mexico, to urge the commissioners to defy the authorities and refuse to certify their preliminary findings. During the meeting last Friday, the crowd hurled insults of “traitors” and “cowards” at the committee members before they voted unanimously to ratify the results.
Election officials and experts have expressed concern that local certification boards in other states that accept conspiracy theories surrounding voting machines may be inspiring to follow the example of Otero County, causing chaos in the election results.
Districts in Nevada have until Friday to sign the results of the state’s primary elections on June 14. Nye County commissioners, who want to stop using ballot tables, are due to meet to consider certification Friday. They haven’t said publicly what they’re planning to do.
Cassidy reported from Atlanta. the Associated Press writer Ken Ritter in Las Vegas; Julie Carr Smith in Columbus, Ohio; and Scott Soner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.