SANTA FE, New Mexico (AP) — 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 elemental functions of democracy have become politicized pressure points amid the swirl of lies stemming from the 2020 presidential outcome.
After the Otero County Commission finally relented, one question persisted: Why New Mexico, a state that has not been a political battleground and where Joe Biden beat Donald Trump handily two years ago?
The seeds of the short-lived election crisis, which ended amid a showdown with the secretary of state and an order from the New Mexico Supreme Court, had been planted months before, when David Clements, a lawyer who has gained prominence in conservative circles, and others began raising conspiracy theories and false claims about the last presidential election that came to dominate political discussion in the heavily Republican county.
But it’s not just Otero County where local election 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 pressing for changes that would upend election administration in their counties. The effort has led to security breaches of voting equipment and, in New Mexico, chaos surrounding what has historically been a routine task.
"You have seen a whole bunch of people — some sincere, some perhaps less sincere — who have rushed to fill the demand to provide evidence of the fraud that Trump created,” said David Levine, a former election official who is now a fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
There was no widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election that could have changed the outcome.
Even before the Nov. 3, 2020, election, Trump was telling his supporters that fraud was the only way he could lose re-election, pointing mostly — and without evidence — to the expansion of mail-in voting during the pandemic.
In the months since, there has been no evidence to support the claims. They have been dismissed by dozens of judges, by 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 “most secure” in U.S. history.
That hasn’t stopped the false claims from proliferating, driven by a group of Trump supporters who appear at many of the same events and engage with each other regularly.
Clements, a former assistant district attorney in southern New Mexico and former business professor at New Mexico State University, has traveled the country speaking with local government boards, at conservative conventions and to church groups. He was at the “cybersymposium” last year held by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a key Trump ally who has sought to prove voting machines were somehow manipulated to favor Biden.
Clements’ popular social media feed on Telegram frequently weaves pronouncements about democracy with scripture and prayer. It also includes video chats with the like-minded.
In one video from March, Clements chatted with Jim Marchant, a Trump loyalist from Nevada who claims elections have long been rigged. Marchant recently won the Republican primary for secretary of state, Nevada's top elections position. He has been a key organizer of 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 U.S. are corrupt.
In the video, Clements and Marchant discuss a “county commission strategy” that involves pressuring local officials to get rid of the “cheat” machines so that all ballots are not only cast by hand but also counted by hand. Election experts say hand-counting of ballots is not only less accurate but extremely labor-intensive, potentially delaying results by weeks if not months. They also say it's unnecessary because voting equipment is tested before and after elections to ensure ballots are read and tallied correctly.
A day earlier, county officials in Nye County, Nevada, had voted to request that the county clerk not use ballot tabulators in the upcoming November election. The clerk is opposed to the move and has decided to retire after the primary. Marchant was among those urging commissioners to make the move.
“It was the first domino to fall to allow us to get back to fair and transparent elections here in the country,” Marchant told Clements. “And we’re going to do it with many more counties right here in Nevada, and hopefully this will encourage others in other states to do the same thing.”
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 U.S. Senate.
“Shouldn’t the commissioners care about whether I trust the system or not?” Clements told Marchant. "I love how you just cut through all the noise.”
This week, Clements is scheduled to appear at an event in Louisiana with Douglas Frank, another Lindell associate who has been traveling the country meeting with state and local officials. In May 2021, Frank met with members of the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office offering to scrutinize their voting procedures, boasting he’s been working with county officials in 22 states.
“You either come onto our team and we can audit it together and show that there was no malfeasance, or you can oppose us,” Frank told agency staff, according to an audio recording. The office did not accept the offer.
For months now, Clements 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 coordinated by Republicans in one chamber of the state's legislature. In Otero County, which Trump won by a wide margin, Clements and his wife, Erin, have been conducting an informal and unpaid review of the county’s 2020 election procedures.
The result has been a series of hourslong presentations to the county commission about unproven vulnerabilities in vote-tallying machines and patterns in voter registration activity. The Clements, who list Las Cruces as their residence, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Earlier this month, when Otero County commissioners were considering whether to discontinue the use of ballot tabulators, the couple again made a presentation. It prompted a rebuttal from Otero County Clerk Robyn Holmes.
“There is a lot of things they have found, that they are saying, that are not true,” Holmes said.
Nonetheless, the commissioners — led by Couy Griffin, co-founder of “Cowboys for Trump,” who was convicted of entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6 insurrection — voted to stop using the ballot tabulators before the November election.
Clements was among those urging Otero County commissioners against certification of the June 7 primary results, repeating conspiracy theories about voting equipment that trace back to the days immediately following the 2020 election. Holmes, the clerk, said the primary was conducted without problems.
Clements also went to Torrance County, another conservative stronghold in New Mexico, to urge commissioners to defy authorities and refuse to certify their primary results. During the meeting last Friday, the crowd hurled insults of “traitors” and “cowards” at commissioners before they voted — unanimously — to certify the results.
Election officials and experts have expressed concern that local certification boards in other states that are receptive to conspiracy theories surrounding voting machines might be inspired to follow Otero County's example, wreaking havoc with election results.
Counties in Nevada have until Friday to sign off on the results of the state’s June 14 primary. Nye County commissioners, who want to stop using ballot tabulators, are scheduled to meet to consider certification on Friday. They have not said publicly what they plan to do.
Cassidy reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writers Ken Ritter in Las Vegas; Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio; and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.