Recent charges by New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas that Secretary of State Dianna Duran tampered with campaign records and misused campaign contributions are not the first charges ever levied against those elected to be the state’s chief election officer.
Both of Duran’s predecessors faced legal trouble. Secretary Rebecca Vigil-Giron was charged by Attorney General Gary King with the fraud and embezzlement of federal Help America Vote funds. Secretary Mary Herrera, Duran’s predecessor, was sued by former employees and investigated by the attorney general, accused of using the office for political purposes.
Legislators and others have been concerned about a partisan official overseeing the conduct of New Mexico elections and implementing campaign law for years — particularly when it comes to role of the secretary of state in auditing candidate reports and election returns. Now is the time to rethink the idea of reorganizing the Secretary of State’s Office, removing the Elections Bureau and ethics functions, and creating a new “Office of Elections” under the direction of a nonpartisan, independent elections commission.
The 2006 Governor’s Task Force on Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform, which met in the wake of another scandal involving one of New Mexico’s other elected executives — the state treasurer — discussed this possibility. It ultimately shelved the proposal in deference to the more urgent need for an ethics commission, but vowed to resurrect it if necessary.
A few years later, it was resurrected by Sen. Dede Feldman, who proposed Senate Bill 672 in 2009 and SB 117 in 2012. Both bills enjoyed the support of many — including the county clerks — who wanted to restore accountability and competence to the electoral process, but the bills went nowhere. Opposition came from Duran, who wrote in her analysis, “When the electorate is removed from the ability to choose the chief elections officer, it takes away from the right of the people to elect leaders in critically important positions such as overseeing the conduct and providing for the integrity of elections.”
Depending on how it is structured, creating a nonpartisan, independent elections commission might require a constitutional amendment, since the constitution gives the secretary of state a number duties related to elections (but not campaigns). Most of the secretary of state’s power, however, derives from the election code, a compilation of laws that are revised almost every session.
Now more than ever we need to restore public confidence in the state’s ability to administer its campaign laws and elections impartially and with the utmost integrity. One way of accomplishing this is by pulling out the elections and campaign administration from the Secretary of State’s Office, leaving that office to the ministerial functions that it also performs — filing of liens, commercial record keeping and issuance of notary commission and oversight of usage of the state seal.
Oversight of campaign reporting and enforcement of the election code could be housed in an office of elections, headed by a director of elections, who would be appointed by an independent, nonpartisan elections commission. In previous proposals, the elections commission had six members — two appointed by the governor, two by the Legislature and two from the ranks of the county clerks.
Sixteen other states have taken steps to take the administration of elections and campaign finance out of partisan hands.
Some administer their elections out of the attorney general or lieutenant governor’s office. Some have combined the idea of an ethics commission with an elections administration. The possibilities are endless if we can only get out of the destructive mindset that corruption is inevitable in New Mexico.
Viki Harrison is the executive director of Common Cause New Mexico.