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N.M. voters to see impact of Local Election Act

August 6, 2018

Everyone was tired. Plenty were crabby.

A 30-day legislative session, with all its politicking, had come down to this — an early morning committee meeting on a sweeping rewrite of New Mexico’s Byzantine election law.

But this 267-page bill, which would pass in the last hours before the final bang of the gavel, may end up being one of the most consequential of the year.

The Local Election Act will change how New Mexicans vote in ways many are only starting to realize.

For example, New Mexico’s myriad school boards, conservation districts and towns hold elections at different times, often with low turnout. Just about everyone might have to live with the outcome of such an election, in the form of higher taxes or cuts in services, even though few cast votes to decide the issue.

The new law will put most of these nonpartisan local elections on the same ballot, combining them into one larger election, which backers hope will get more voters to participate.

The act goes even further, requiring governments to hold all special elections — such as for bonds and other tax proposals — by mail. And the new law makes it cheaper for some cities to move to ranked-choice voting.

So, this is not just rearranging some elections’ dates. The state is embarking on a sort of experiment.

“This is fundamental change, and you can’t do fundamental change piecemeal,” says Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, a Democrat from Albuquerque who sponsored the new law.

In the end, backers hope New Mexico government will be more accountable and accessible to the public. But some worry about other consequences.

If the law is meant to make life easier for voters, it was born out of a tough fight between school officials, town governments and other organizations concerned by what could be wrought from shaking up the election process in such a big way.

The new law is already causing headaches for school board members. Officials fear more opposition to taxes and bond proposals. The real result of this experiment, they say, could be the defeat of one measure after another to raise money for schools, parks and hospitals.

“I think it’s a bad idea any time you’re combining too many issues into one election. It dilutes the importance of each of them,” Santa Fe school board President Steven Carrillo said.

Here are three ways the Local Election Act is sure to change how you vote:

• There will be fewer elections.

The big selling point behind the Local Election Act was the idea of combining most nonpartisan local elections — from school board to town council to soil and water conservation district board — onto one ballot.

Instead of holding elections at various times of the year, these big local elections will take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of odd-numbered years. That is what we already call Election Day in even-numbered years like 2018 and 2020.

As it stands, these various small elections draw few voters.

For example, more than 80,000 Santa Fe County residents were eligible to vote on whether to scrap a property tax that has funded local schools for years. But fewer than 7,000 voters turned out for the quiet February election. Voters opted to keep the tax in place.

And that turnout was not too shabby when compared to other local elections around the state.

In 2015, for example, fewer than 3 percent of eligible registered voters cast ballots in an Albuquerque school and community college board election.

Ivey-Soto formerly served as the state’s election director, but even he will admit he has never voted in an election for his local soil and water conservation district.

“I don’t know when their elections are,” Ivey-Soto said earlier this year as he made his case for the Local Election Act.

Ivey-Soto had sponsored the bill for several years, seeing an opportunity to change many of what its backers view as some of the biggest problems in New Mexico’s voting system with one sweeping rewrite of the law. And one of those problems, as the bill’s supporters saw it, were these various small elections.

But some, like Carrillo, are not so sure this change will necessarily be for the better.

For one thing, ballots will be longer, and counties will get to pick polling places instead of local governments.

Though turnout is low in most school board elections, the thinking goes, many of those who actually vote know more about the schools and are more vested in those issues.

Carrillo’s fear is straightforward: “Plenty of folks that are just anti-tax people are liable to just go down the line and vote no on everything.”

Ivey-Soto calls this “a fear that voters might finally figure out who all is taxing us.

“Frankly, I think the voters have a right to know who all is taxing us,” he said.

Ivey-Soto also points to bond questions that appear on general election ballots.

“They all pass,” he says. “Every now and then, one of them doesn’t pass. And when one of them doesn’t pass, there’s a reason it doesn’t pass. And people discuss that one.”

The law will only go so far, though.

In political wrangling at the Legislature, town governments were not included in the Local Elections Act, meaning cities will still hold separate elections with the choice of opting in to the combined elections.

The Santa Fe City Council is mulling whether to ask voters this year whether to move the next municipal election from March 2020 to November 2019.

For now, school districts are getting used to the new law, and many face a very immediate concern. Several — including in Albuquerque and Santa Fe — planned to ask voters to renew taxes next year.

Districts now must decide whether to move those elections back to November 2019 and risk the tax revenue lapsing for months, at a cost of millions of dollars in some cases — or pay for a special election earlier in the year. If they opt for the special election, districts will still have to pay for an election in November so voters can elect school board members.

• You will get ballots in the mail.

Under the Local Election Act, special elections will be conducted entirely by mail.

All eligible voters will get a ballot in the mail. To vote, all a voter has to do is mark his or her choice and pop it in the mail. No need to worry about a stamp. Postage will be covered.

Backers argue this will end those stealth campaigns by obscure government bodies to raise taxes through little publicized elections. At the very least, they expect it will get more voters to participate.

There is reason to believe their hopes are not misplaced.

A study published in 2017 by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission found that voting by mail increased turnout in local special elections by an average of 7.6 percentage points.

Las Cruces is already giving it a try. The city is the first in New Mexico to conduct an election entirely by mail.

Voters in New Mexico’s second-largest city are getting ballots with four bond proposals and six changes to the municipal charter.

“Mail ballots are perfect for this type of election,” says Doña Ana County Clerk Scott Krahling.

Still, mail ballots may only heighten concerns about voter fraud.

“The more steps you have from the voters and the people counting ballots, there’s more room for monkey business,” says Paul Gessing, president of the conservative Rio Grande Foundation.

But he sees an upside if the process makes it less popular for local governments to call special elections on tax proposals in the first place.

“If it kind of dissuades the powers that be from having those types of elections, that’s a good thing,” he says.

• More cities could adopt ranked-choice voting.

For people in Santa Fe, it already has been a year of change in the voting booth.

The city used ranked-choice voting in its municipal election for the first time, letting voters rate multiple candidates instead of choosing just one. Las Cruces has also switched to ranked-choice voting.

Under the Local Election Act, other cities may follow.

The law says certain cities — home rule municipalities with runoff elections — can opt in to ranked-choice voting for half the cost of holding a runoff.

There are only a handful of home rule municipalities, including Rio Rancho, Alamogordo, Clovis and Gallup.

There may be other complications with these cities opting in. But by mentioning ranked-choice voting, the law enshrines in statute a system that lacked legitimacy even earlier this year, when the Santa Fe city government was wondering aloud whether it is even constitutional.

“I think that advances the possibilities for ranked-choice voting to expand in the next few months and years because there’s no question about whether it’s legal, whether the machines can handle it,” says Maria Perez, executive director of FairVote New Mexico, which is campaigning for election reform around the state.

Whether all of this will lead to better elections and better government will be up to the folks who really matter in this process: the voters.

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