Voting access, not political parties, is what matters

September 16, 2018

Talk about unforced errors. Few voters were clamoring for the opportunity to vote a straight-party ticket. Independents and third-party voters hated the idea. So did many members of both major political parties, including some elected officials.

Yet, of all the potential challenges to running a fair and efficient general election, the issue Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver chose to tackle was offering a straight-party voting option, announced just in time for the general election.

Last week, the New Mexico Supreme Court set her straight. Justices said that only the Legislature can decide to restore straight-party ticket voting. Under that system, a voter can make choices in numerous races — from U.S. Senate to county commission — by filling in the oval for a particular party.

Such a choice would not impact retention races, constitutional amendments or bonds; in fact, some voters would fill in the political party oval and forget to complete the ballot. Our view continues to be that even if straight-party voting is faster and more convenient, filling in ovals one at a time is a worthwhile exercise for all voters.

We’re also pleased with the manner in which the Supreme Court made its ruling. Despite concerns that straight-party ticket voting would hurt the GOP — New Mexico Democrats have a voter registration advantage — the court had no trouble making its decision. Three of the five justices are Democrats, too. It is refreshing to see a court decide based on law rather than political party affiliations. That’s how the system is supposed to work.

We also have said that if voters want a straight-ticket option, it would be up to the Legislature to endorse such a move. That’s the view of the Supreme Court as well. However, just because legislators can does not mean they should, and we hope that come the 2019 legislative session, more important issues will take precedence.

Toulouse Oliver, a champion of making voting more accessible, should focus her election reform efforts elsewhere. She backs same-day voter registration and open primaries; those are important reforms that will help more voters participate in making choices about who governs the state.

We also would like to see the state discuss moving to an opt-out voter registration system; eligible voters are placed on the rolls when they renew or apply for their driver’s licenses or have interaction with a social service agency. If people do not want to be registered to vote, they have to opt out.

Then, there is the process of voting itself. Toulouse Oliver, in bringing in voter convenience centers in Bernalillo County, made great strides to simplifying voting on Election Day. Voters can stop where it is convenient for them; they are not tied to a precinct by their homes when they work across town. The system has worked in Santa Fe County, too.

Of course, as we saw in a recent Las Cruces general obligation bond election, the best way to make voting convenient and increase participation might be to switch to voting by mail.

New Mexico recently enacted a law requiring special elections to take place by mail, and the Las Cruces bond vote was the first test for the law. In the election, more than 25 percent of voters participated, which compares favorably to 5.6 percent. That’s the number of voters who showed up for a school bond election in Las Cruces earlier this year. As we have said before, and likely will say again, greater voter participation is good for democracy.

Toulouse Oliver is both secretary of state and a candidate for a four-year term against Republican Gavin Clarkson and Libertarian Ginger Grider. We want to hear more about how the rights of all citizens to vote can be protected, as well as what each candidate, if elected, would do to improve voter participation.

As we have seen across the country, measures such as moving polling places from minority areas, decreasing the numbers of early voting days, excessive purging of voter rolls and burdensome voter-ID requirements all can suppress turnout. Which, of course, is exactly the goal. Now, with the unnecessary commotion over straight-party voting over, let’s use the general election to discuss how the next secretary of state will work to expand voting rights and access. That’s the issue in this and any other elections. Stop with the distractions.

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