HARDING County consists of two towns that between them have one gas station and no stoplights. Yet its residents rally to paint beautiful murals on buildings that most outsiders will never see, along state highways that most drivers will never travel. It’s the type of proud homestead where nearly one-tenth of the 650 residents travel hours to root for its girls basketball team, which made the state playoffs despite having only five players (in one game this season, the team finished with two players on the court after three fouled out — and still won by a point). Where the ascension of a local boy to the New Mexico Statehouse was rare enough to spur Election Day parties … and the curious controversy surrounding a local sheriff’s race spawned heated debates and spurred generations of families to the polls last November.
To outsiders, such details may seem like the small-town quirks of an obscure ranching community. But each contributes to a civic engagement that makes Harding County stand out among countless rural communities across America with wallpaper-white clouds and blue skies. In fact, according to an OZY exclusive analysis with political consulting firm 0ptimus: Harding led the nation with 97 percent voter turnout in 2018 — and hit 100 percent in 2012 and 2014.
Sure, Harding only has about 498 voting-age residents, according to census projections. Still, using voting-age estimates and vote totals, Harding County has had nearly 100 percent turnout in each of the past four election seasons. By comparison, New Mexico as a state saw 62 percent turnout in 2016. And there are lessons to be learned about what drives Americans to care enough to make their voices heard — even in small towns.
The energy of Harding County residents at the polls begins with a scrappy spirit away from them. “I see our community as one of the last frontiers,” says Tuda Libby Crews, a 75-year-old conservationist and rancher who also operates the Rectory, one of the area’s only bed-and-breakfasts, lovingly built from the ruins of a local Catholic church. In the village of Mosquero, Crews’ words have added weight. The road is flat for miles until it suddenly isn’t, giving way to desert canyons. The soil isn’t good for growing crops, but it’s good enough for grass and cattle, and the families working this land produce hardy children.
“Some kids have to pull a calf before they come to school” — for the uninitiated, that means giving a pregnant cow a little help with the delivery, says Mary Libby Campbell, executive director and president of two Harding County economic groups and chairwoman of the Ute Creek Soil & Water Conservation District. Multiple titles are a theme here: With so few people, those who are involved tend to wear many hats.
Another title for Campbell: Crews’ younger sister. Family ties are also ubiquitous. That presents a challenge for the kids in Mosquero, whose school has 37 students from preschool through 12th grade. “You definitely have to go out of the county to date,” jokes Baylee Horn, a former prom queen and editor of the Harding County Roundup, a quarterly student newspaper that serves as the county’s only dedicated news source.
Ask about voting, and everyone has a different opinion. To Crews, it’s part of people’s “values and their sense of patriotism,” she says, noting that early voting is popular (as it is statewide, where only 34 percent of New Mexican voters did so on Election Day in 2016). County Clerk CJ Garrison says their elections workers make sure to show up where the people are: health fairs, in school, at rodeos. “We know most of the people in the county. Anybody new comes in, we’re sending them a registration already,” Garrison says. Not everybody thinks that’s a good thing. To Jimmie Ridge, Mosquero mayor between 2015 and 2016 and owner of the Town & Country Market, the reasons for the high turnout are less romantic. “There is absolutely nothing for people to do except talk about their neighbors. People are involved with absolutely everything that goes on,” says Ridge, who moved to Mosquero a decade ago. “It’s kind of shaming people into voting.”
When first mentioning the high turnout in the past midterms, local election officials point out the excitement of having Jack Chatfield, a rancher who owns a Mosquero restaurant, win his race to become a state representative. They pause, though, when asked about the sheriff’s race. And only once you talk to less-official sources, does the truth come out. “Big scandal,” says Nick Archuleta, a former county manager. The local sheriff, Raymond Gutierrez, was convicted of cutting the fence of a neighbor so he could get to his own ranchland faster. Gutierrez’s cows were later found munching on his neighbor’s grass.
“This is a ranching community. Back in the day, if you cut somebody’s fence, that was almost a hanging offense,” says Will Hayoz, the deputy sheriff who ran a write-in campaign against Gutierrez in November. The incident touched nerves, and every vote counted: Gutierrez won reelection by just seven votes. “Maybe it was a wake-up call,” Ridge says.
So there you have it. Want to get people more involved? Instill a sense of community pride … and a smidgen of heartland drama might not hurt.