Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver is sticking to her guns.
In a 23-page response to a lawsuit filed by the state Republican and Libertarian parties and others, lawyers representing the Democrat in charge of New Mexico elections rejected their claim that the state Legislature did away with straight-party voting in 2001 and asserted that Toulouse Oliver has the power to give voters that option.
The response, filed Friday in the state Supreme Court, argues that “the New Mexico Legislature has never prohibited the inclusion of a straight-party voting option on the ballot. The Legislature, instead, left this option, like other options involved in formatting the ballot, to be determined by the secretary of state.”
The state Attorney General’s Office, which is representing her agency, cites a state law that says ballots shall “be in the form prescribed by the secretary of state.” This, the response claims, leaves it to the secretary of state to decide whether a straight-ticket option is on the ballot.
Opponents of straight-party voting have claimed that Toulouse Oliver is trying to revive the practice in order to help Democratic Party candidates — including herself. The argument is that candidates in down-ballot races who aren’t Democrats will suffer if enough people vote straight Democratic. More voters in this state are registered as Democrats than with any other party.
The petition also argues that a straight-party option violates the Constitutional right of equal protection under law. Independent and minor-party candidates already face unique hurdles to even get on the ballot, the petition says. Plaintiffs also say Toulouse Oliver should have gone through a rule-making process instead of making a unilateral decision.
Much of the arguments in both the petition and the response deal with a bill that passed the Legislature in 2001.
House Bill 931, which passed both the House and Senate unanimously, dealt primarily with technical issues surrounding touch-screen voting machines. Neither the bill itself nor the accompanying fiscal impact report mention the phrase “straight-party voting.”
However, the bill repealed a section of the state Election Code dealing with technical requirements for old lever-operated voting machines, everything from the construction materials and workmanship to the machine’s ability to print out voting results, the response says.
“Petitioners arrive at the unlikely result that the repeal of these specifications and the Legislature’s adoption of electronic voting in 2001 expresses unambiguous legislative intent to prohibit a straight-party voting option,” the response says.
The state kept straight-party voting for 10 years after HB 931 became law. Then, in 2011, when Dianna Duran became secretary of state — the first Republican to hold that position in decades — she got rid of the straight-party option.
The New Mexico Supreme Court has set a hearing on the court challenge for Wednesday.
Besides the Republican and Libertarian parties, plaintiffs include Unite New Mexico, a group backing independent legislative candidates on the ballot — namely Jarratt Applewhite, who is running against state Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, in District 50, and former state Rep. Treciafaye “Tweeti” Blancett of Eagle Nest, who is running for retiring Rep. Nick Salazar’s seat in District 40.
Other plaintiffs are Heather Nordquist, a Democrat running as a write-in candidate against Democrat Andrea Romero for the state House District 46 seat in Santa Fe County, and Liberty PAC, a Libertarian political action committee supporting former Gov. Gary Johnson, who is trying to defeat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and GOP candidate Mick Rich.