For months, fringe groups have been knocking on doors across the country, inquiring about residents’ 2020 votes. But in Otero County, New Mexico, those door-knocks might soon come as part of a nearly $50,000 contract between the county, a conspiracy-peddling tech group, and an even further-right Telegram channel.
Otero County is a Republican stronghold in New Mexico. More than 60 percent of Otero voters cast ballots for Donald Trump in 2020, in contrast to the state’s pro-Biden majority. That hasn’t stopped some locals, chiefly an Otero County commissioner currently facing charges related to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, from calling for an “audit” into the county’s vote.
In January, the county approved a nearly $49,750 audit contract with EchoMail, a company founded by election conspiracy promoter Shiva Ayyadurai. EchoMail, in turn, says it will contract the “New Mexico Audit Force” to conduct a “door-to-door canvas” of county voters.
But the audit effort could face early obstacles. New Mexico’s actual state auditor, Brian Colón, has opened a special examination into the Otero audit’s legality. Meanwhile, EchoMail’s recent work in an “audit” of votes in Maricopa County, Arizona received a damning rebuttal from local officials, and the “New Mexico Audit Force” is not a company at all, but a Telegram group that traffics in conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
Colón said his examination will look into whether the EchoMail contract followed state and local codes, as well as whether it is a worthwhile use of taxpayer money.
“Is there supporting justification for expenditures?” Colón told The Daily Beast. “That's where we get into the contemplation of whether or not this is wasteful spending, or if it is in the best interest of the citizens of Otero County.”
Colón said his office opened its investigation after an Otero County resident contacted them with concerns. It’s not the first time in recent history that the state auditor’s office has been called to investigate Otero County spending.
In 2020, Colón’s office slapped the county with a risk advisory for travel expenses, after county commissioner Couy Griffin expensed a $3,237 trip to a Trump event in D.C.. Griffin, a former restaurateur and founder of the group “Cowboys for Trump,” later repaid the county.
The 2019 trip was not Griffin’s last journey to D.C.. On Jan. 6, 2021, he was filmed on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, giving a speech via bullhorn to Trump fans during the attack on the building. Griffin is set to go to trial next month on counts of allegedly entering restricted grounds and impeding government business on Jan. 6. Griffin has denied both counts, and allegations that the attack was a “mob,” stating that “we could have a 2nd Amendment rally on those same steps that we had that rally yesterday. You know, and if we do, then it’s gonna be a sad day, because there’s gonna be blood running out of that building.”
Griffin, who did not return The Daily Beast’s requests for comment, was a vocal advocate for the Otero County audit.
When the county’s attorney raised legal worries about the audit (namely civil rights lawsuits) during a Jan. 13 county meeting, Griffin dismissed his concerns.
“Should I honor my oath and be loyal to the people or should I cow to the state and say ‘oh no, I might get sued or I might get in trouble?’” Griffin asked during the meeting. “What would you do?”
Griffin’s past pro-Trump spending, plus his advocacy for an audit, could put the campaign in jeopardy with state investigators.
“We always have to consider red flags,” Colón said. “Prior misconduct is going to be a red flag on any given set of future circumstances. And in this case, we know that the individual who most aggressively advanced the interest of having the county enter this contract was somebody that we have had to hold accountable in the past.”
Otero is neither the first county to conduct a controversial election “audit,” nor the first to contract with EchoMail. The company, originally an email service founded by Ayyadurai, was one of several contractors involved in Maricopa County’s budget-blowing audit in 2021. Ayyadurai and other contractors had repeatedly promoted election fraud conspiracy theories. Although the audit eventually confirmed that President Joe Biden won Maricopa County (it actually increased Biden’s victory margin), it surfaced a list of 75 supposed errors in the county’s voting record.
Maricopa County officials quickly debunked 74 of the claims (the final, an instance of 50 double-counted ballots, might be true, local officials say).
Despite EchoMail and Ayyadurai’s recent record, Otero County’s contract with EchoMail gives the company permission to analyze “approximately up to 25,000 Ballot Images” and to “perform door-to-door canvass of Otero County voter registration database to determine accuracy of voter registration database.”
Those canvassing efforts, which consist of knocking on doors and asking residents about their votes, are legal but controversial. Several pro-Trump groups, both local and national, spearheaded similar efforts in late 2021. The visits were not always well received, with Pennsylvania officials accusing canvassers of intimidation and one national canvassing organization admitting that some of its volunteers had exhibited “pedophilic leanings.”
EchoMail’s contract with Otero County states that its “canvass will be staffed by volunteers under the direction of New Mexico Audit Force (‘Volunteers’) with guidance from EchoMail.”
Neither EchoMail nor Ayyadurai returned requests for comment about its relationship with the New Mexico Audit Force (NMAF) or the group planned to screen and train its door-to-door team. And while none of the involved parties would clarify whether Otero County has a direct contract with NMAF, such a relationship appears unlikely, as NMAF does not appear to be a legally incorporated entity. (No business of that or similar names exists in New Mexico business registry records.)
Instead, the NMAF’s primary online presence is a Telegram group, where leaders regularly allege fraud in the 2020 presidential election. The group frequently shares posts from the likes of Ron Watkins, the former 8kun administrator accused of authoring parts of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Group leader Erin Clements has also claimed, incorrectly, that the 2020 presidential vote tallies show evidence of “algorithmic” manipulation in Biden’s favor.
Reached via Telegram, Clements told The Daily Beast she would answer questions after this reporter read a New Mexico Audit Force report entitled “Election Fraud In New Mexico.” Informed that this reporter had already reviewed the document, Clements declined to answer questions, and instead asked the New Mexico Audit Force Telegram channel to contact this reporter.
During a Jan. 13 meeting, Otero’s county attorney R.B. Nichols noted that the canvass effort was one of several potential legal liabilities to EchoMail’s proposed audit. He asked whether the NMAF canvassers would be representing the county when they knocked on doors.
“Some people are not going to like someone coming up to their door and asking them about where they're registered to vote, how they're registered to vote,” Nichols said, in remarks first reported by the Alamogordo Daily News. “Some people could see that as intimidation."
Clements, who was attending the meeting on behalf of EchoMail, said the group would not portray itself as associated with the county. "That part of the audit is actually volunteer-based so you’re not contracting with the canvassers, all you're doing is receiving the report from the canvassers," Clements said. “We would introduce ourselves as ‘New Mexico Audit Force’ and not mention the county at all.”
Like the chaotic Maricopa County audit, the Otero effort is using taxpayer money, as well as privately raising funds for unspecified expenses. The county struck a $49,750 deal with EchoMail, although Nichols cautioned that actual expenses might well exceed $50,000.
During a Jan. 13 county commission meeting, Nichols noted that many of the audit documents would likely have to be obtained via New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act, a move that would rack up administrative fees.
“I’m assuming EchoMail’s not gonna want to pay that because that would be a bad business move by them,” Nichols said. “The county’s wanting this to be done, so the county would be incurring this additional cost of the IPRA production, in addition to the burden on the clerk’s office and their already fairly demanding duties.”
Outside official channels, the New Mexico Audit Force is also soliciting funds for its “canvassing” effort. In a fundraiser promoted by MAGA lawyer Lin Wood (and hosted on one of his websites), the group is trying to raise $100,000 for its efforts. (In a contract with EchoMail, and in the Jan. 13 county meeting, the NMAF and EchoMail described NMAF as a “volunteer” group.)
On its Telegram channel on Tuesday, the NMAF shared a post claiming to have raised $20,000 through the Wood-backed fundraiser. Already the funds total a significant share of the taxpayer money that Otero County plans to spend on the audit.
“We’re talking about almost $50,000,” Nichols said, “which is not an insignificant amount.”