For almost two years, Democrats have accused the Trump campaign of colluding with Russian operatives to interfere in the 2016 election, yet one of their own elected officials is facing legal action for attempting to “rig” the upcoming midterm election in New Mexico. Less than 70 days before Election Day, amidst her own re-election bid, Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver announced she would add an option to the November ballot that had been explicitly outlawed by the New Mexico legislature in 2001, the straight-party option.
Before 2001, New Mexico’s Election Code (“Code”) provided that ballots had to “permit each voter…to vote a straight party ticket in one operation.” In 2001, the state legislature unanimously passed a bill repealing that part of the Code. Governor Gary Johnson signed the bill into law. For nearly a decade after, the straight-party option was still placed on ballots inadvertently. In 2011, Secretary of State Dianna Duran enforced the existing Code, finally making the ballots in compliance with New Mexico law.
When Duran executed the law as written, she received sharp criticism from the Democratic Party of New Mexico (“Democrats”). Ironically, the Democrats issued a statement alleging that Duran’s adherence to the law was “based on personal and political whims” and remarked that, “Without any public notification, without any kind of conversation with the public on such a big change, we just don’t think it should happen six months before an election.”
Since the New Mexico legislature repealed straight-party voting, there have been at least three legislative attempts to amend the Code to allow the option once again. All the efforts have been unsuccessful. After a unanimous abolishment of straight-party voting and three failed attempts to reenact it, it’s clear that New Mexico voters are “…independent-minded and don’t need or appreciate a ballot that provides a short-cut to partisanship,” as former Gov. Gary Johnson explained in an email.
Straight-party voting, also known as straight-ticket voting, is the practice of voting for all the nominees for political office from one particular party by checking a single box. Instead of the voter making careful individual assessments of candidates, straight party voting makes mass choices on the voter’s behalf based on blind faith in a specific political party. According to Richard Winger of Ballot Access News, straight-party voting “…hurts minor party and independent candidates, particularly for offices lower on the ballot such as legislative and county positions.”
Currently, only 10 states allow straight-party voting. The remaining 40 have adopted the so-called “office block” ballot. The office block ballot lists candidates alphabetically in columns under the office for which they are running. Logically, “whichever party is in the minority in an area often favors the office-block system, hoping that some of its candidates may prevail if voters are “nudged” to consider their individual merits against a generally adverse partisan tide.”
New Mexico’s partisan tide is mostly blue. As of July 31, 2018, 45.9% of all eligible New Mexico voters were registered Democrats. Only 30.5% of eligible New Mexico voters are registered Republicans. The remaining voters are unaffiliated (21.9%) or Libertarian (.7%). Given the voter registration data, it’s clear that Democratic candidates would have the most to gain from straight-party voting. After all, Republicans refer to straight-party voting as “…an attempt to rig the system in favor of the Democrats.”
On August 29, 2018, without public notice, comment, or hearing, Toulouse Oliver’s office sent out a press release announcing the return of the straight-party option. According to New Mexico Supreme Court documents, Toulouse Oliver made the illegal decision alongside another Democrat running for re-election who would also benefit from the decision; the New Mexico Attorney General. Toulouse Oliver’s attempt to restore straight-party voting has drawn sharp criticism from Republicans, Libertarians, and even Democrats.
The Republican Party of New Mexico (“Republicans”) call Toulouse Oliver’s action a “hasty, last-minute attempt to consolidate as much power as possible for Democrats as their candidates continue to struggle in the polls.” They believe Toulouse Oliver’s election bid, in particular, will “unfairly benefit” from straight party voting.
Gov. Gary Johnson, the former governor who signed the bill into law removing straight party voting, is a current Senate candidate for the Libertarian Party of New Mexico (“Libertarains”). Johnson did not hold back when it came to his thoughts on the situation. He declared that “Pushing voters toward straight-ticket voting is a worn-out staple of majority-party incumbents.”
Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria, who is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, weighed in on the situation. Candelaria voiced his concerns by saying “It’s not a matter of voter convenience; it’s a matter of partisan advantage in low information elections.” It’s not just Toulouse Oliver’s personal integrity that is under scrutiny, but the integrity of the entire New Mexico election.
Republicans believe Toulouse Oliver’s last-minute “blatantly self-serving” attempt indicates that she is incapable of serving as both the “referee” and a “participant” in the election. They conclude that her actions “undermine any confidence New Mexico voters can have in the fairness of this election.” Republican candidate for Governor, Steve Pearce, said that Toulouse Oliver “attacked democracy” to “rig elections and disenfranchise voters.” According to Pearce, “Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s actions are creating a grave crisis” in the democracy of the state of New Mexico.
In an act of bipartisanship, the Republicans joined forces with the Libertarians along with two political action committees and one candidate to file an emergency petition to prevent Toulouse Oliver from carrying out her “just-announced, last-minute plan” to implement straight party voting. The Supreme Court of New Mexico will hear oral arguments for the case on September 12th at 1:30 p.m.