Currently, all school elections must be held at different times from other elections.
The proposed constitutional change on the Nov. 4 ballot would allow school elections to be held at the same time as nonpartisan elections, such as municipal or bond or special district elections.
They could not, however, be held at the same time as partisan elections, if the proposed change is approved.
Some voters have complained that it’s not clear from the description on the ballot exactly what the constitutional change would be and what it would mean for school elections.
The current requirement for separate school elections is rooted in historic discrimination against women, who didn’t get the right to vote in all public elections until 1920 – and much later for Native American women.
When New Mexico’s Constitution was adopted in 1910, however, it was decided that women should be allowed to vote on school issues.
So those elections were separated from others – “to make sure not only that women were allowed to vote in those, but to keep them out of all other elections,” according to Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.
Ivey-Soto, the Senate sponsor of the proposed constitutional change, said the principled position would be to “remove this anachronistic vestige of prejudice from our Constitution altogether.”
But there is too much opposition – for a variety of reasons – to having school elections at the same time as partisan elections. Allowing them to be held with nonpartisan elections was the compromise that could win the required legislative approval, which came in 2013.
The proposal is to change the wording of the Constitution so that, instead of saying school elections “shall be held at different times from other elections,” it would say “shall be held at different times from partisan elections.”
The problem has arisen with the way the measure is presented on the ballot. The ballot description is the precise language of the title of House Joint Resolution 2, as it was passed by the Legislature:
“Proposing to amend Article 7, Section 1 of the Constitution of New Mexico to provide that school elections shall be held at different times from partisan elections.”
Voter David Ansell of Albuquerque said the ballot wording is confusing – particularly for voters who don’t know the prohibition against holding school elections with partisan elections is already in the Constitution.
The wording “should clearly state what it is that’s being changed, and it didn’t do that,” Ansell told the Journal.
Ansell is a longtime proponent of pairing school elections with nonpartisan municipal elections; he believes it would increase voter turnout and lessen what he says is the disproportionate influence of the education community on school elections.
Now, he’s worried that the ballot wording is so unclear that people who would otherwise support the proposal will end up voting against it.
Unlike the other four constitutional amendments on the Nov. 4 ballot, the school elections measure has to overcome a high hurdle: Because of the section of the Constitution it changes, it must be approved by three-fourths of those who vote on it, not simply a majority.
Ivey-Soto said he now wishes, for the sake of the ballot measure, that the title had been worded differently. But he said the focus of the debate in the Legislature was whether to remove all restrictions from school elections – in other words, allow them to be held with partisan elections as well.
“That title so accurately reflected the discussion we were having that nobody questioned the title as it was going through,” the lawmaker said.
The New Mexico School Boards Association fought the idea of pairing school elections with partisan elections, and hasn’t taken an official position on the amendment in its current form, which Executive Director Joe Guillen described as a compromise.
The association of 89 school boards is concerned that passage of the amendment would open the door for the Legislature to change the timing of school board elections, which are set by law in February of odd-numbered years. The association wants to keep that provision, he said.
Ivey-Soto said passage of the amendment wouldn’t change anything immediately.
“It allows us to have a conversation to see where it might make sense to combine, if it makes sense to combine,” the lawmaker said.