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Commissioners vote to oppose straight-party ballot

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“We are asking the Attorney General to go talk to the Secretary of State and give her a comprehension lesson in the meaning of the law,” says Robert Corn, chair of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners. He presided at a Tuesday special meeting opposing Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s decision to allow a straight-ticket option on the Nov. 6 general election ballots. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Some contend only NM Supreme Court decision will matter

The Chaves County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to oppose the recent decision by the New Mexico Secretary of State to allow “straight-ticket” voting on the ballots for the Nov. 6 general elections.

In reaction to the vote and others planned statewide, some people encouraged local elected officials to take a stand against what they characterized as overreach on the part of Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver in an effort to benefit the Democratic Party — but others said any votes about the issue at the county level are moot.

During a meeting that lasted only five minutes, all five Republican Chaves County commissioners voted in favor of Resolution 18-031.

“My research on the law this weekend indicates that it doesn’t specifically say that you can and it does not specifically say that ‘thou shalt not’ either,” said Commissioner Robert Corn, chair of the Board of Commissioners, the only commissioner to talk publicly about the resolution during the meeting.

“But it does say, or at least my interpretation of the law, that you are supposed to follow precedents that have been set,” he said. “And, since 2012, the precedent has been not to have a straight-party ticket or voting. So that is the situation now in my estimation. So if we pass this resolution, we are asking the Attorney General to go talk to the Secretary of State and give her a comprehension lesson in the meaning of the law.”

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A spokesman for New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said the office will consider the resolution.

“We can confirm that we are aware of this resolution,” said David Carl, “and we are reviewing the actions of the county commission. We will fully review this matter to protect the integrity of elections in New Mexico.”

The Chaves County resolution states that there is “no constitutional or statutory authority” for straight-ticket voting and that the option “does not create additional choices. It, in fact, encourages voters to make decisions without evaluating the merit of each candidate for office.”

Corn emphasized that the resolution also encourages Chaves County Clerk Dave Kunko to make it clear that he and the Board of Commissioners do not want a straight-party option on ballots.

Toulouse Oliver, who is seeking re-election as a Democrat, announced Aug. 29 that she was going to place the option on the ballot, saying that the decision gives voters more options and increases “access” for people who find it difficult to complete an entire ballot.

With the option, people can select one bubble to vote for all the candidates belonging to one party only. They also would continue to have the option for voting for each candidate separately. And if, choosing a straight-party vote, voters would be required to make selections for those offices or issues that do not fall within the party category that they have chosen to cast a vote. What is uncertain is what happens if people select the straight-party option and then vote for a candidate for a different party.

The Secretary of State’s decision resulted quickly in vocal protests by many political groups and candidates, as well as an emergency lawsuit filed with the New Mexico State Supreme Court to block the option on ballots. The court is scheduled to hear the matter Sept. 12.

That lawsuit was filed by the Republican Party of New Mexico, the Libertarian Party of New Mexico, the Elect Liberty Political Action Committee, the Unite New Mexico political group and Heather Nordquist, a write-in Democratic candidate for a state House of Representative seat in northern New Mexico.

The local meeting drew a few audience members interested in political matters.

“I am just glad to see that the county commission stepped up and passed this resolution that represents our views on this issue,” said Roswell City Councilor Caleb Grant, also chair of the Republican Party of Chaves County.

Dara Dana, a Republican candidate for a Chaves County Board of Commissioners seat in November, said that she was “shocked” to see this issue come back up, having been aware of the 2012 decision by the New Mexico State Legislature not to authorize a straight-party option, which had existed at one time but had been discontinued in 2001.

Dana said much of the discussion in 2012 involved voter intent, how to tell what people wanted if they selected a straight-party option but then also voted for individual candidates of other parties.

“We have talked about this before, when it was in the Legislature years ago,” she said. “That’s why we decided, okay, and it was bipartisan, to do away with it and now, all of the sudden, it is back again. And it goes back to voter intent. You hear people say today, ‘I don’t vote the party. I vote the person.’ So why are we going back?”

Others said that the commissioners’ vote will have no bearing on what happens.

“Discussion and dissent are a healthy part of our democracy, but today’s vote doesn’t change the Secretary of State’s decision and authority to format the ballot to include a straight-party voting option,” said Deputy Secretary of State John Blair. “The New Mexico Supreme Court will make a final decision on this issue. In the meantime, Secretary Toulouse Oliver will continue working to increase access to the ballot for all eligible voters and to ensure a safe and secure general election.”

Kunko indicated that the state will print the ballots and that his office’s role is to certify the county and local candidates and issues to appear on that ballot. He said he really does not have authority to print his own ballots or change what the state decides.

That view was backed up by an email sent to county clerks Tuesday morning by the executive director of the Clerks Affiliate of the New Mexico Association of Counties. Daniel Ivey-Soto stated that clerks have no authority in the matter, that only the New Mexico State Supreme Court can make the decision about the ballots and the options available to voters.

“Though late in the game, the petition before the Supreme Court is an orderly process that will render a binding statewide decision in time for the 2018 general election to be administered by the county clerks,” wrote Daniel Ivey-Soto, also a Democratic member of the New Mexico Senate. “Adding to the chaos does not add value to the proper administration of elections. Attempts at local variations on a statewide issue are futile and counter-productive. It is incumbent upon each county clerk to abide by whatever decision is issued by the Supreme Court.”

According to the email, Ivey-Soto was writing partly in response to a Saturday memo to county clerks distributed by the law firm of Clarkson, Hendricks and Dunn urging them not to certify any ballot with a straight-party option and to ask the Secretary of State not to give such a choice to voters. Dr. Gavin Clarkson is a Republican candidate for Secretary of State, while A. Blair Dunn is a Libertarian candidate for Attorney General.

At least two other county commissions were scheduled to vote on their own resolutions opposing straight-ticket options on ballots. The commissioners of Dona Ana and Roosevelt counties posted agendas indicating they also intended to hold special meetings on the matter on Tuesday.

According to the lawsuit filed with the state Supreme Court by those opposing the straight-ticket ballot, most people think the option benefits the Democratic Party and “harms independent, minor-party and Republican candidates.”

As of Aug. 31, the largest percentage of voters in the state, 45.9 percent, were registered as Democrats, according to the Secretary of State website. Republicans, the next largest group, represented 30.4 percent of voters.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.