A simple majority of voters is enough to elect a mayor or governor — but it’s not nearly enough to change how New Mexico holds its elections.
A lawyer representing the League of Women Voters of New Mexico will argue in the state Supreme Court on Wednesday that a simple majority of ballots should be enough to pass constitutional amendments expanding voters’ access to elections — despite a requirement of 75 percent favorable votes.
At the heart of the matter are amendments proposed in past years that would have allowed school elections to be held on the same day as other local nonpartisan elections, such as city elections, a move that likely would increase voter turnout. Three times in recent years — in 2008, 2010 and 2014 — voters supported such amendments by majorities ranging from 58 percent to just under 75 percent.
The League of Women Voters petitioned the state Supreme Court to review the matter, arguing that language in the New Mexico Constitution only requires 75 percent voter approval for any amendment that would limit voter rights or access — not those that seek to increase access.
“This is not restricting rights but expanding rights,” said Albuquerque attorney and Democratic state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, who represents the League in the case. “It is confirming the rights people now have as opposed to the rights they used to have.”
The constitutional language dates back to before 1920, when women in New Mexico were only allowed to cast votes in school elections, thus requiring those elections to be held separately from others.
If the justices side with the plaintiffs, not only would school elections be held on the same day as city elections, which tend to draw more voters, but outdated and offensive language denying “idiots” and “insane” people from voting also would be removed from the New Mexico Constitution.
Part of the problem stems from apparent contradictions between language in a constitutional article that governs the procedures for amending the constitution and language in articles that set limitations on making those amendments, including the requirement for “super-majority” approval.
The League of Women Voters says the Advisory Committee for the New Mexico Compilation Commission — which compiles rules governing practices and procedures into state statute — is responsible for the confusion because it has not served as a watchdog on the matter.
But Ari Biernoff, assistant attorney general and a lawyer for the defendants, wrote in a response that the State Canvassing Board, which releases the results of state elections, is responsible rather than the advisory committee.
Biernoff’s response says conflicting constitutional language may be at the root of the problem.
Ivey-Soto said if the court rules in favor of the League, it will take time to clear up the language in the constitution and that such changes would not impact elections until 2019.
The League, among other groups, has long argued that holding school board elections on the same day as other nonpartisan elections would encourage more voters to participate. In Santa Fe County, for example, school-related elections rarely draw even 5 percent of the eligible electorate.
“That doesn’t mean we are all going to get a presidential-level turnout … but what it does mean is that people who are interested in local issues have one time when they have to show up at the ballot box to vote,” Ivey-Soto said. “It makes it a lot easier on the voter.”
Biernoff did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
Meredith Machen, president of the League of Women Voters, said in an email Monday, “We hope that the Supreme Court will see the merits of the case for what they are. The conflicting sections of the Constitution must be dealt with. … A strong majority voted for the Constitutional Amendments in question in 2008, 2010, and 2014. With school elections getting only three percent turnout, it is clear they are not representative, so it’s time to combine them with other non-partisan elections.”
Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.