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AP Explains: How straight-party voting evolved in New Mexico

September 5, 2018

FILE - In this July 24, 2018, file photo, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver speaks during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. A decision by Oliver to bring back a straight-party voting option on ballots in November is drawing strong condemnation across the state. Republicans, independents and even some Democrats have denounced the move as illegal and have called it a power grab in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered GOP voters. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh,File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A decision by New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver to bring back a straight-party voting option on ballots in November is drawing strong condemnation across the state. Republicans, independents and even some Democrats have denounced the move as illegal and have called it a power grab in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered GOP voters.

But Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said she is well within her authority to reintroduce the straight-party voting option and has argued the decision will increase “voter access.” Meanwhile, at least four New Mexico counties have passed resolutions opposing the move. A coalition of Republicans, Libertarians and Democrats also has filed a complaint with the New Mexico Supreme Court seeking to the return block straight-party voting in New Mexico.

Here’s a look at how the debate over the straight-party voting option has evolved in New Mexico:

THE HISTORY

The option to vote a straight-party ticket had been a fixture for decades in New Mexico until then-Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran stripped away the feature in June 2012. Duran said state law didn’t specifically authorize it. She and other Republicans pointed to a 2001 law signed by then-Gov. Gary Johnson that repealed a provision that required lever-type voting machines to offer the option. New Mexico switched to a paper ballot voting system statewide in 2006.

Scott Forrester, the Democratic Party of New Mexico executive director at the time, criticized Duran for making the change six months before an election and without any public input. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez introduced a number of times bills that would have required the straight-party voting option on ballots. But those proposals failed.

Straight-party votes accounted for 41 percent of ballots cast statewide in the 2010 general election, the last time the option was available. About 23 percent of the election’s total votes were Democratic straight-ticket ballots and 18 percent were Republican, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Brian Sanderoff, an Albuquerque pollster and longtime observer of New Mexico elections, said the 2012 election came after redistricting so the effects of ridding straight-party voting couldn’t be measured.

THE DISPUTE

In the time that the straight-party voting option was off New Mexico ballots, Republican Gov. Susan Martinez won in 2014 re-election by 15-points — the largest margin of victory ever for a Republican gubernatorial candidate in New Mexico. The Republicans that year also won control of the New Mexico House of Representatives for the first time since 1952.

The change alarmed Democrats, especially because New Mexico has the highest percentage of Hispanic residents of any state and many tended to vote Democratic.

Toulouse Oliver won a special election for secretary of state in 2016 after Duran resigned amid a campaign finance violation conviction. The Democrat announced last week, just under three months before the November general election, she would bring back the straight-party voting option.

Her decision came just days after former Gov. Gary Johnson announced he would run for New Mexico’s U.S. Senate seat as a Libertarian. Some Democrats worry Johnson would make the race involving Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich more competitive.

THE 2018 ELECTION

While the Democratic Party of New Mexico officially celebrated Toulouse Oliver’s decision to bring back the straight-party voting option, some Democrats joined critics to rebuke the change.

Heather Nordquist, a Democratic write-in candidate for a state House seat, for example, she didn’t buy Toulouse Oliver’s explanation that it would make voting more accessible. “We already have absentee ballots and early voting,” Nordquist said.

Democrats in southern New Mexico, especially in more conservative swing districts, were critical of the move. Las Cruces County Commissioner Ramon Gonzales, a Democrat, said he supported candidates based on their records, not their party. He voted this week to oppose a straight-party voting option on ballots.

Gabriel Sanchez, a University of New Mexico political science professor, said the return of the straight-party voting option likely would hurt Democrats’ chance at flipping the state’s open southern U.S. House seat. In that race, Democrat Xochitl Torres Small is running against Republican state lawmaker Yvette Herrell.

For Torres Small to upset Herrell, Sanchez said she’ll have to convince some liberal Republicans to cross over. “This is going to hurt her,” Sanchez said.

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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