Commissioners from several counties across New Mexico asked local clerks not to include an option for straight-party voting on this year’s ballot, rebuking Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s efforts to bring back the option.
The resolutions may not resolve much, though, as clerks watch for the state Supreme Court to rule on a lawsuit over the issue.
Still, the slew of measures pointed to just how controversial a little bit of the ballot has become, with proponents contending the option will make voting easier and critics arguing straight-party voting benefits Democrats while leaving independents and other parties at a disadvantage.
Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, announced last week she will reinstate straight-party voting after a Republican predecessor scrapped the option in 2012.
Under this option, voters can support a party’s entire slate of candidates by filling in the bubble at the top of a ballot rather than filling out the ballot in its entirety. Voters do not have to cast a straight-party ballot. It is merely an option. And a voter can still select individual candidates from other parties even if they vote a straight-party ticket.
Critics immediately blasted the chief election official’s announcement, however, arguing it was meant to help Democrats.
The secretary of state had said during her 2016 campaign that she would support reinstating straight-party voting. But critics have questioned the timing of her announcement last week, coming within 70 days of the Nov. 6 election and with no public hearings.
An unlikely coalition of political action committees, parties and even a write-in candidate filed suit, asking the state Supreme Court step in. At the center of their case is legislation from 2001 that repealed provisions for allowing straight-party voting with old voting machines. They contend that legislation repealed the legal basis for straight-party voting altogether. But Toulouse Oliver points to another law that says ballots shall be designed in a form she prescribes. That, she argues, gives her the authority to reinstate straight-party voting.
The state Supreme Court on Tuesday set oral arguments in the case for 1:30 p.m Sept. 12.
In the Meantime, people on different sides of the debate have dispensed dueling advice directly to county clerks.
The Republican candidate for secretary of state, Gavin Clarkson, along with the GOP nominee for attorney general, Michael Hendricks, and A. Blair Dunn, the Libertarian candidate for attorney general, told county clerks in a memorandum they should “refuse to certify for printing any ballot that contains a straight-party option.”
But the county clerks affiliate of the New Mexico Association of Counties issued guidance of its own, telling clerks that county commissioners cannot decide whether a straight-party option appears on the ballot.
“At the end of the day, the Supreme Court will determine if Straight Party is provided for or permitted,” the memo said. “… Adding to the chaos does not add value to the proper administration of elections. Attempts at local variations on a statewide issue are futile and counter-productive.”
The commission actions nonetheless spurred debates over straight-party voting and much more, turning the issue into a proxy battle of sorts over the inclusiveness and thoughtfulness of New Mexican democracy.
In Las Cruces, a small crowd lined up to offer a range of opinions on the nature of citizenship and even the nitty-gritty of New Mexico’s election code. Some said straight-party voting makes voting more accessible. Efforts to remove straight-party voting, some argued, were merely a tactic of voter suppression. Others said straight-party voting discouraged voters from reading a whole ballot and considering candidates on their merits.
Commissioner Benjamin L. Rawson, a Republican, sponsored Doña Ana County’s resolution asking the clerk to not include a straight-party option on the ballot. He argued, among other things, that straight-party voting only deepened partisan divides.
“It is so important we don’t become so loyal to our political parties we forget about our neighbors and our friends,” he said.
Commissioners there passed the resolution 4-1, with a couple Democrats siding with Rawson amid concerns about what they argued was the late timing of Toulouse Oliver’s announcement.
The New Mexican confirmed that commissioners passed similar measures in San Juan, Eddy, Lea, Roosevelt, Chaves and Curry counties.
“Ultimately, I think it’s still going to be up to the county clerk,” Doña Ana County Attorney Nelson Goodin told commissioners.
Meanwhile, some clerks said it was not up to them to decide whether a straight-party option appears on their ballots.
“I have to follow the election code,” said Keith Manes, the Lea County clerk. It will be up to the state Supreme Court to clarify the issue, he added.