By Scott Manning
How confident are you that your vote in the November elections will be protected against hacking and that malicious software intrusions will be blocked? According to Corrales’ Bob Perls, upcoming elections in Sandoval County and in much of the United States remain vulnerable to the same kinds of threats that jeopardized the 2016 election.
The report by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller proved that Russia engaged in a coordinated campaign to influence that election. The Russians coordinated a social media campaign to spread misinformation and hacked voter databases. Although the impact of Russian election meddling is unclear, Russian efforts demonstrated that the U.S. election process is susceptible to outside influence.
And there is reason to believe that Russia could try these kinds of tactics again: Russia was caught attempting to meddle in elections throughout Europe just last year.
Primarily to better secure the November 2020 election process, Perls, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, ran for the office of Sandoval County Clerk in June. He lost, but remains actively engaged on election security issues. Perls also is the founder of N.M. Open Elections, a non-profit organization that works to improve voter turnout in elections.
He explained that the current voting process needs revision and requires new infrastructure to improve voter turnout and election security. He is convinced the country has not systematically improved election security from the processes and technologies used in the 2016 election.
The election process will remain at risk until governments designate election infrastructure as a piece of key national infrastructure, he warned. With its current governmental status, election infrastructure is easily accessible and highly unsecure.
For example, one can purchase a ballot machine on eBay. According to Perls, the Russians have in fact purchased U.S. ballot machines in order to reverse-engineer the designs and learn how to exploit weaknesses in the machines. U.S. election technology would be less available to foreign powers if it were designated key national infrastructure.
New Mexico ranks in the middle of state rankings in terms of voting security and infrastructure. Two primary forms of potential election corruption exist: retail election fraud and wholesale election fraud. Retail election fraud is a small and low-impact form of fraud in which an individual might steal an absentee ballot. Evidence shows that this kind of election tampering is rare, isolated and ineffective.
In contrast, wholesale election fraud poses a significant risk to the election process because it involves a coordinated effort to hack and undermine an entire election system. A hacker engaging in wholesale election fraud might try to hack into voter databases or tamper with an election vendor to gain information about voters or to influence the election results. Russia is the best-known actor that engages in wholesale election fraud.
The U.S. election process faces other risks as well. Perls expressed concern that only 13 states have adopted voting machines that leave a paper trail. These new machines create a paper receipt that records voting behavior. This “paper trail” enables authorities to run an audit on local election locations to guard against election fraud. Thirty-seven states have not adopted these new election machines, leaving them more susceptible to and less responsive to voter fraud.
Looking at the election process more broadly, Perls says that the country and individual states need to spend more money to update voting infrastructure and to reform the voting process. Perls has several recommendations for states and for the federal government to adopt in voting reform. First, all states should adopt the paper trail voting machines because the technology greatly strengthens the ability of governments to audit elections to check for voter fraud.
Second, governments need to invest in training their county clerks and civil servants in cybersecurity threats and in crisis-management. County clerks are responsible for running elections, so it is imperative that clerk offices become more educated about potential voting risks. Clerks should receive additional training in identifying cybersecurity threats and reviewing staff credentials to mitigate security risks and to ensure an effective response to cases of voter fraud, he said.
And county clerks must be trained in crisis management. In the case of voter fraud, clerks must be prepared to establish crisis centers to effectively investigate and address the situation.
Third, governments need to continue to work on minority voter engagement to improve voter turnouts and voting accessibility in minority communities.
Finally, Perls supports the adoption of all-mail ballot systems in which every registered voter is automatically mailed a ballot. This system allows for all voters to cast their votes by mail. This system has several advantages.
Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, voters would be able to cast their votes from the safety of their own homes. Importantly, a mail-in ballot system gives voters several days to submit their ballot. During this time, voters can research the candidates listed on the ballot and make informed decisions before casting their votes.
As a final benefit, Perls argues that all-mail ballot systems increase overall voter turnout: when Colorado switched to mail-in ballots, the state experienced a five percent increase in voter turnout.
Perls explains that there are some obstacles to adopting an all-mail ballot system, but voter security is not one of them. Evidence shows that all-mail ballot systems suffer from very little fraud. Another common concern is the belief that all-mail ballot systems disproportionately benefit one political party or cause over another. Again, research demonstrates that mail-in ballot systems do not preferentially benefit any one group.
But all-mail ballot systems do require expanded voting infrastructure and new technologies to make the process secure, efficient, and transparent. States adopting an all-mail ballot system must first update and vet their voter databases so that mail ballots are sent to the correct residents with their correct addresses. After verifying and updating voter databases, states must redesign their ballots to fit the mail format, and they must also develop the infrastructure to track mail ballots much as Amazon tracks package orders.
States will need to print a unique bar code on every ballot, and residents should be able to access an online system where they can track the location and status of their ballots.
Then there is the issue of developing “curing” processes. In a mail-in ballot format, residents should be alerted if their completed ballot is rejected. The government should then grant the voter the opportunity to “cure” the ballot for resubmission. This process requires that governments increase the number of voting staff so that residents can communicate with voter authorities.
Finally, Perls said, to verify the identity of voters, states must invest in signature verification software. This software is essential in the validation process for mail-in ballots. All of Perls’ suggested security and election reforms require funding. He estimates that $2 billion are required to update voter infrastructure across the country. In the stimulus bill passed by Congress this spring, only $700 million were devoted to updating the election process.
Looking at New Mexico specifically, the state has made strides in improving its voting infrastructure, but work remains to be done, Perls cautioned. New Mexico is one of only 13 states that have adopted paper trail voting machines, and he congratulated New Mexico on this achievement. Additionally, New Mexico’s Secretary of State has gone through crisis control training, but many clerks in the state have not received this training.
Regarding an all-mail ballot system, New Mexico has made important reforms to the voting system, but the state is not yet an all-mail ballot state. This past special session of the N.M. Legislature, legislators passed Senate Bill 4 that requires that county clerks send all registered voters an application to obtain a mail-in ballot. Although the state still does have an all-mail ballot system, this legislation is an important step in voting reform.
New Mexico’s Secretary of State has also done important work to update voter databases, but the state has not adopted a ballot tracking system or signature verification software.
Moving forward, Perls suggests that New Mexico look to Colorado as an example for election reform. Colorado runs an all-mail ballot system, and the state has adopted open primaries in which independents are permitted to vote in primary elections. These reforms have increased voter turnout. And Colorado, a “purple” state with strong tendencies for conservative and liberal politics, also demonstrates that these voting reforms are not partisan issues.
Corrales crops dependent on ditch irrigation should survive to harvest despite the drought, meager flows from southern Colorado’s slopes and extreme temperatures. In mid-July, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District successfully sought permission from Texas and Colorado through the Interstate Stream Commission to use about 38,000 acre-feet of stored water.
Otherwise, MRGCD officials said the Rio Grande would have dried up along this stretch of the river and depleted water flowing to irrigation ditches. On July 17, the MRGCD issued a statement that it “was anticipating running out of its general irrigation water supplies in upstream reservoirs by Saturday morning [July 18] that would have led to extensive river drying and devastating crop losses throughout the middle Rio Grande valley.”
State Engineer John D’Antonio, who serves on the Rio Grande Compact, said the agreement specifies that the “borrowed” water be used judiciously to prevent catastrophic cross losses and minimize impacts to endangered species.
In the July 17 statement, MRGCD noted that the agreement was “an exceptional occurrence, but also cautionary. “The district is informing the public and our water users that although we may squeeze by this year, without significant precipitation, we can expect to have in excess of 100,000 acre-feet debt to downstream users next year. This water must be replaced as soon as possible to prevent harm to irrigation districts below Elephant Butte Dam and, by the rules of the compact, may also severely limit the district’s use of El Vado Reservoir in future years.”
This is the first time since the 1950s that such an emergency use of stored water has been implemented. Earlier this summer, MRGCD halted water deliveries arranged through its water bank. As of July 19, the 2020 monsoon season had produced only scant sprinklings of rain.
Night time recreational use of the Corrales Bosque Preserve has been restricted due to ongoing concerns over fire danger. On recommendation from the Bosque Advisory Commission , Mayor Jo Anne Roake set an earlier closure time for visits to the preserve. From April to October, evening use must end by 9 p.m.
The revised closing time is now 7 p.m. from November through March. Signs are being posted at entrances to the preserve. The commission wanted to change to be consistent with rules for the Rio Grande Valley State Park to the south.
Commissioners noted that reports have come in about small fires being started in the bosque and about people entering the preserve around midnight and even later. The preserve had been posted with a closure time of 10 p.m. At their June 11 meeting, commissioners were reminded that no allowable uses of the bosque need to be done after dark. Concern was also expressed that visits to the preserve at night raise potential for personal injury with diminished capacity for public safety personnel to respond.
Commissioners have also learned that someone deliberately damaged the most popular footbridge into the preserve. Metal straps securing a side railing for the “Boy Scout Bridge” over the Riverside Drain (“Clear Ditch”) were removed, probably in the evening of July 15.
A reward has been offered for information about the vandalism; a tip or other information may be emailed to email@example.com. Commissioner Joan Hashimoto said she noticed the damage Thursday, July 16. “I noticed that four of the anchor straps on the south rail of the Scout bridge had been vandalized. One was completely missing.” She said a neighbor had repaired the railing the following morning. The footbridge was installed as an Eagle Scout project more than 25 years ago.
A frequent bike rider in the Corrale Bosque Preserve, Guy Spencer recently came across a less frequent visitor: a bobcat, right on the trail. “I’m an avid mountain biker, and throughout the years, I’ve certainly come across and run into many cool things and experiences,” Spencer recalled after the July 15 encounter. “This however quite possibly falls into its own little bucket.
“I was out on the bosque this morning, getting a cool, quiet ride in around 6 a.m. I often ride during this time, selfishly taking advantage of the solitude and grace the bosque so unselfishly offers to many of us early bird-ers.
“There’s “Gene” who walks 10 miles almost every day; there’s the nice couple who moved here from Seattle; the quiet guy in the jump suit and hoodie, and a handful of other ‘regulars.’
“I was headed back south from top of the trail, about to cross the arroyo just north of the reconstructed trail head on Romero Road, north side of the arroyo, on the single track. Just as I was coming out and around that last bush, this little fella walked right out in front of me” abut 10 feet away.
“At first I assumed it was a solo dog ...and then, as I looked over at it towards the river, it gazed back at me. Well, that was no dog!
“What took me by surprise was quickly overridden by how calm this creature was. I bet I fumbled with my phone for almost an entire minute before I was able to take three shots. Amazing.
“I was just standing there over my bike watching the cat move ever so slowly away from me …fearless, content and unsuspecting.
“What a blessing to have seen it so close. Just a gorgeous creature. “
By Scott Manning
While a new group is beginning to research possibilities for a mixed-use recreational area along the Corrales Interior Drain, the City of Albuquerque in conjunction with Bernalillo County is currently implementing a somewhat similar project along the Alameda Drain in the North Valley.
That project in Albuquerque and in Bernalillo County territory is an ambitious plan to transform the ditchbanks along the Alameda Drain. Like the situation in Corrales, the drain in the North Valley is an important piece of infrastructure for stormwater runoff and irrigation water return flow. Both are managed by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD).
Any recreation plan along the drain had to ensure that the drain retained its water-control functions. According to John Kelly, a board member with the MRGCD, the North Valley project has been successful so far because it began with effective collaboration between relevant governments and agencies in the region and with strong community support.
At the beginning, the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority (AMAFCA), the MRGCD, Bernalillo County and the City of Albuquerque agreed to work together on a plan for the drainage ditch.
This collaboration proved to be key to the project’s success, Kelly said. Each of the four groups contributed $50,000 for a master plan for the drain. With the plan in place, the MRGCD continues to conduct maintenance oto assure its flood and water control functions. The City of Albuquerque and the County have performed construction and maintenance efforts for the recreational project along the ditch bank.
Without a master plan, advocates for each proposed project had to reestablish collaborative relationships and go through a long process of review before any project was approved. That was because construction guidelines could change between plans. This made the proposal process inefficient.
For the Alameda Drain recreational project, AMAFCA, MRGCD, the City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County established a master plan for the entire drain stretching from Sandia Pueblo to Interstate 40. The plan identified potential uses and features in future recreational projects along nine miles of the drain.
Therefore, the master plan greatly streamlined the approval process since those proposals that are consistent with the master plan are approved after they pass an engineering review.
Kelly said strong community support also helped to make the project a reality. Before beginning construction on the project, the City sent out postcards to residents notifying them of the proposed project.
Bernalillo County then continued its outreach by hosting public meetings and by meeting with private landowners.
During this outreach process, aspects of the plan were discarded and revised to better meet community needs. For example, Kelly had hoped to implement a dog park along the route, but this feature was ultimately removed due to concerns of feces polluting the drain. Clear communication with residents built support for the recreation project.
Kelly said that the process went well because the parties involved took the time to plan the project properly and transparently. He suggests that Corrales advocates should start with a master plan and with public engagement. Then the design and construction steps can begin, he suggested.
According to Kelly, Albuquerque and Bernalillo County likely enjoyed several other advantages in planning and implementing the North Valley recreation project. First, much of the drain follows along Second Street, a major public thoroughfare. This allowed for good visibility and traffic along the drain, meaning that many residents wanted an improved surface along the ditch bank and new amenities for recreation.
Another factor: the parties received federal and state funding through the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) from the Department of Transportation because designers were able to tie the trail proposal to transit. The trail runs along major roadways and goes past a Railrunner Station on Montaño, so the drain appears on transportation maps. This unique transportation status opened funding avenues for the massive project.
Now several years into construction efforts, Kelly said the recreation project is a success story because the City and County managed to repurpose a weed-infested ditch bank into a recreational space that benefits residents while preserving maintenance access for the district.
According to Yasmeen Najmi, a planning specialist with MRGCD, the Alameda project is a major experiment in creating a multi-use space that serves both flood control and recreation purposes. The project contains several key design features that make the drain an experimental, multi-use space, taking in many engineering and recreation considerations.
First, designers developed a vegetation scheme that would improve the aesthetics of the trail. Trees and shrubs provide shade for residents enjoying the trail and new ecosystems for wildlife in the area. This vegetation scheme was designed to lower the maintenance requirements along the drain for the district. By planting perennial vegetation including grasses and wetland plants along the ditch bank, designers aimed to reduce sediment erosion into the drain and choke out weeds along the bank.
Second, the project provides MRGCD with an opportunity to educate residents about the history of the drain. The drain was built in the 1930s, and it has provided essential flood control functions for decades. Signage has been added along the trail to teach people about the district’s role in bosque management and about general features in the area.
Third, the project and related features aim to improve the quality of water in the watershed. The Alameda Drain ultimately connects back into the Rio Grande, and AMAFCA is involved with the project to reduce the sediment and pollution transport from the drains.
Stormwater flows into the drain, and this runoff contains sediments and pollutants. Implementation of the plan has added more plants to reduce the erosive impact of the drain, and other efforts have been made to slow down the flow of the water to allow for larger sediment to fall out of the water before it enters the Rio Grande. Fourth, new recreation features have been added to the ditch bank. Low-impact rock now covers the hiking trail, and pedestrian bridges and benches have been constructed.
The City of Albuquerque is even involved in integrating public artwork along the trail. Finally, designers intend for the trail to be well-integrated with transportation infrastructure and businesses throughout the valley. The trail connects to the Montaño and Los Ranchos Railrunner stations so that commuters have easy access to the recreational space. And the trail will connect with schools and businesses, including the Range Café, in the North Valley. Through this type of integration, local communities will be able to enjoy and benefit from the trail. Given the experimental nature of the project, Najmi says that the project will be tested in the coming years.
Its developers designed the recreation features with care to preserve the maintenance needs associated with a major water control network. The MRGCD requires 15 to 20 feet of access on both sides of the drain, so recreational features had to be designed around these limitations.
Access to culverts and drain crossings was preserved, and fences were installed. Najmi says it remains to be seen how well maintenance work can be conducted in conjunction with recreational activities along the drain. Already some changes have been made to phase two of the project after MRGCD recognized that it needed additional maintenance features in later phases of the project.
The project in Albuquerque is ongoing. Both the City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County are constructing their own projects because some sections of the drain lie in unincorporated parts of the metro area. The County began phase one of its project in 2018 and completed the phase in 2019. That phase stretched from Montaño to Osuna.
Najmi estimated that this first phase of the County’s project cost around $2 million. The County is currently working on building phase two of the project from Osuna to El Pueblo, just south of Paseo Del Norte. The City of Albuquerque is completing the design for phase one of its project. This phase will go along Matthew from the intersection of Second Street and Montaño down to Fourth Street.
Funding is secured for the project phases mentioned above, but Najmi is unsure how the pandemic has affected financing for these kinds of recreation projects. While the ambitious project is ongoing, Najmi did not know when the entire project will be completed.
Najmi and Kelly have received positive feedback from members of the community about the recreation offered along the trail. The trail receives a high quantity of pedestrian and cyclist traffic, and traffic has been higher than usual during the pandemic as families seek out safe and local forms of recreation.
Najmi pointed out that a recreation project along the Corrales Interior Drain would require that the Village perform maintenance. The MRGCD works to maintain the flood control features of the drain, but due to insurance constraints, the district would be unable to maintain the recreational features.
If the Village Council approves it, a 12.8-acre tract at the north end of Corrales between the Main Canal and the Corrales Lateral ditch will be preserved in perpetuity as farmland.
Using at least $960,000 of the $2.5 million generated by sale of general obligation municipal bonds approved by voters in 2018, the Village would acquire a conservation easement on the land owned by Brad and Deborah Haslam southwest of the intersection of Corrales Road and Kings Road. The broad, rich pastureland is used for alfalfa, cattle and other livestock. No further development of the land will be allowed, although the Haslam home and farm related structures would remain.
The Village’s farmland preservation program, which began acquiring such easements in 2004, essentially buys development rights from the participating landowner. The transaction also buys water rights attached to that acreage. This would be the first use of proceeds from the GO bonds voters approved three years ago. “In 2018, 80 percent of our citizens passed a bond directing the Village to acquire conservation easements to protect Corrales open space,” Mayor Jo Anne Roake explained in her July 17 “Mayor’s Message.”
That level of Corraleños’ support for saving farmland from residential development has held steady since the first round of bonds for that purpose more than 16 years ago. Back then, voters here approved the bond proposal by a vote of 1,178 to 237. (See Corrales Comment Vol.XXIII No.14 September 11, 2004 “Corrales Approves Bonds to ‘Save Farmlands’ By 5-to-1 Margin.”)
But in those days, the program was greatly aided by federal grants. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2003 awarded Corrales a $1.1 million grant to purchase conservation easements. USDA required a 50-50 local match to its grant, so the $2.5 million bond package approved by voters here August 31, 2004 was adequate to USDA grants.
The proposal presented to the Village Council this month states that the Haslams would “place the entire property into a perpetual conservation easement with an approximate one-acre residential building envelope” and a half-acre agricultural building.
The property is currently composed of three parcels accessible from Kings Road. Under the agreement, the land could not be further subdivided. Without the easement, the property theoretically could become 12 to 13 home sites. But the offered lands cannot be seen from Corrales Road, nor accessed from the community’s main thoroughfare. That is a concern for some villagers who opposed the acquisition.
“It’s land-locked and not even viewable from any Village road,” said one who has followed proposals to use the available bond money. He said the Haslam field cannot be seen from nearby Loma Larga due to a large vegetated berm, nor from Corrales Road or Kings Road.
A similar opinion has been expressed by Ken Duckert, who urged the mayor and council to delay a decision to gain more public input. “I visited the proposed Haslam conservation easement this week and cannot find words to adequately describe my amazement that the Village will consider spending public money on a property that will satisfy no one except the seller, nearby neighbors who don’t want new neighbors, and the few hikers and bikers who use the adjacent ditch trail.
“It fits nicely with six of the other conservation easements in the village in that no one will be able to see it as they drive through the village. Once acquired, few will take the time to find and visit this property. Ask yourself, why would anyone visit this property? Hidden properties like this do nothing to promote the rural or cultural heritage of Corrales.”
Duckert went on to say he and others think the Village’s conservation easements must be easily seen. “No one I’ve talked with likes the idea of public money being spent on property that is hidden from view and offers only a passive recreational opportunity of looking over a fence at an open field. Even my twin six year old grandchildren see little or no satisfaction in doing that.”
But Corrales’ program has always been about saving farmland from development, not preserving scenic views. Corrales was the first community in New Mexico to start a municipal farmland preservation program funded by municipal bonds.
To Duckert, “the financial terms seem especially shocking. It appears that the final cost of this project will be kept secret. While a floor price of $960,000 seems to be established in the proposal, it is almost a guarantee that the final cost will be substantially more and is to be kept ‘in confidence.’ In a time when transparency is a common topic in conversations about government operations, how can spending public funds be kept secret? If true, this is really disturbing.”
While the farm’s green pastures cannot be seen driving along Corrales Road, they are a welcome sight for pedestrians, equestrians and cyclists using the Corrales Lateral ditchbank as well as the eastern ditchbank of the Corrales Main Canal to a lesser degree.
In the proposal presented to the council July 21, “the property will include an area large enough to accommodate an approximate 200 square-foot wildlife viewing platform with an interpretive sign featuring migratory bird educational information. The landowners are responsible for the design and construction of the viewing platform including associated costs.… The area will be easily accessed off the public recreational trail along the Corrales Lateral. This area cannot be used by the landowners for any other purpose outside of public use.”
The proposal states that the lateral irrigation ditch “is frequented by many residents and visitors for walking, running horseback riding and mountain biking.”
The agreement was negotiated by the Village’s agent, Michael Scisco of Unique Properties Real Estate. As with Corrales’ previous conservation easements, this one would be held and administered by the New Mexico Land Conservancy based in Santa Fe.
Although the land has been farmed for decades, Debbie and Brad Haslam began growing a specialized crop to feed a herd of 27 alpaca they acquired from a breeder in Santa Fe who was closing down the business, according to a 2014 article in Bosque Beast.
Brad Haslam is a long-time distributor for Stryker medical equipment.