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House Oversight panel launches investigation into New Mexico ‘Audit Force’

Otero County is spending nearly $50,000 on an Arizona-style partisan ballot review of votes cast in 2020.
Image: New Mexico vote
Voters on the first day of balloting at the Santa Fe Convention Center in Santa Fe, N.M., on Oct. 6, 2020.Morgan Lee / AP file

The House Oversight Committee is launching an investigation into a partisan ballot review in Otero County, New Mexico, where a self-proclaimed “audit force” is going door to door and questioning voters.

The county, which borders Texas and has about 67,000 residents, agreed this year to pay nearly $50,000 to EchoMail, one of the subcontractors involved in Arizona’s partisan ballot review, to review its 2020 election results.

“The Committee is investigating whether your company’s audit and canvass in New Mexico illegally interferes with Americans’ right to vote by spreading disinformation about elections and intimidating voters,” House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the chairman of the subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties, wrote in a Wednesday letter addressed to V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, the founder of EchoMail.

Ayyadurai, who participated in Arizona's discredited ballot review, has regularly advanced conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, as well as his own 2020 loss in a Massachusetts Senate primary, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud anywhere in the U.S.

Ayyadurai's company agreed this year to examine ballot images in Otero County, evaluate voter signatures and oversee a door-to-door canvass of voters conducted by volunteers known as the New Mexico Audit Force to determine the accuracy of the county voter rolls, according to EchoMail contract materials posted online by the county commissioners who approved the deal.

Former President Donald Trump won Otero County by more than 25 percentage points in the last election.

In its letter to Ayyadurai, the House panel said, “The canvas may have a particular impact on minority communities in Otero County,” noting that 40 percent of the county’s residents are nonwhite Hispanic.

“Otero County’s diversity makes it susceptible to the same threat identified by DOJ in Maricopa County—that canvasses of this nature, even when sponsored by local governments, can result in intimidation directed at minority voters.”

The ballot review in Otero County is similar to the one Arizona Senate Republicans orchestrated in Maricopa County last year. Maricopa County's in-person canvass of voters was eventually canceled after the Justice Department raised concerns that it would violate civil rights laws to prevent voter intimidation.

The House Oversight Committee referred its concerns about the Otero County ballot review to the Justice Department in a second letter Wednesday to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division.

The committee asked EchoMail to produce documents and communications about the ballot review and canvass, with a focus on the operation’s policies, procedures and funding, by March 31.

“The reports coming out of New Mexico of EchoMail’s canvassers harassing and intimidating people on their own property in the name of a sham ‘audit’ are truly disturbing. I urge the Department of Justice to review potential ongoing civil rights violations arising from this so-called audit, and I look forward to uncovering the full scope of EchoMail’s actions,” Maloney said in a statement shared with NBC News.

Ayyadurai did not respond to requests for comment.

New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said at least 20 complaints have been lodged with her office over the canvass operation and that more than twice as many have been filed with the state attorney general's office.

“They’re being asked very personal questions about their marital status, personal, private information that the public doesn’t have access to, how they voted — which literally nobody but the voter can or should know unless they want to share that information," Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said Wednesday. "It can have a very intimidating effect."

Reviewing the county's election results is "completely unnecessary," she said, noting that the state already conducts “three levels of audits,” including a post-election audit that samples precincts from across the state to verify results.

One of Otero County’s precincts was included in that audit, she said.

Toulouse Oliver and state Attorney General Hector Balderas issued an “advisory” this month warning voters that some of the 60 canvassers were falsely purporting to be representatives of the county. The state officials informed voters that they do not have to answer questions from the canvassers.

Otero County's three commissioners, all of whom are Republicans, later urged the canvassers to clearly identify themselves and wear nametags. But they also defended the ballot review.

“The intent of the audit is to restore trust, faith, and confidence in the integrity of our elections,” the GOP commissioners said in a news release. “Election integrity is a non-partisan issue.”

None of the commissioners responded to requests for comment.

One of the commissioners, Couy Griffin, is scheduled to stand trial next week on misdemeanor charges in connection with the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Leaders of the New Mexico Audit Force, a volunteer group, according to the House letter, appear to believe fraud occurred in the 2020 election.

One of the group's leaders, David Clements, was reported to have given a speech about the review. “I want arrests, I want prosecutions, I want firing squads,” he said, according to The Daily Beast.

Asked if she believed there was fraud in the 2020 election, Erin Clements, another group leader, told NBC News "this has nothing to do with whether I believe it, I have hardcore evidence from our canvass that fraud occurred."

She claimed there was no evidence that voters were intimidated by her canvassers and said she believed complaints made to state authorities were fabricated as part of a "smear campaign" against their operation.

Toulouse Oliver said the New Mexico Audit Force has pitched its services to at least one other county in the state, Sandoval County, and appears to be seeking to expand its operation.

She also raised questions about whether the group leaders were being paid for their canvassing.

EchoMail's materials say parts of the work will be “funded by EchoMail’s partners.” In Maricopa County, the now-defunct Cyber Ninjas were paid with some taxpayer dollars but got the bulk of their funding from outside groups.

Clements said no one in the New Mexico Audit Force is being paid.