SANTA FE — A fixture on ballots for decades, the option to vote a straight party ticket is disappearing in New Mexico and won’t be available when people head to the polls in November.
Voters historically could choose to support a party’s entire slate of candidates by making just one mark on the ballot or pressing a single button or lever on a machine. But Secretary of State Dianna Duran has decided not to allow that in this year’s general election because there’s no provision in state law specifically authorizing it.
“Her job is to follow the law,” said Ken Ortiz, the secretary of state’s chief of staff.
Straight party votes accounted for 41 percent of ballots cast statewide in the 2010 general election. 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.
What remains unclear is whether elimination of the straight-ticket option will disproportionately help or hurt Democratic or Republican candidates.
“This could have major implications,” said Brian Sanderoff, an Albuquerque pollster and longtime observer of New Mexico elections.
It’s far from certain whether voters who cast straight-ticket ballots in the past will continue to support only the candidates of their favored party by marking ballots in each individual race. People might simply skip voting in lower profile races as they go through a potentially long ballot.
“Would one group be more likely to split their ticket when they don’t have an opportunity to vote for a straight ticket? Would one group be more likely to fall off and not vote for the down-ballot races? How would it affect local races and legislative races? These are big questions,” Sanderoff said.
The general election features races for the presidency, a U.S. Senate seat being vacated by a Democratic incumbent and contests that determine whether Democrats retain control of the New Mexico Legislature.
Duran is the first Republican elected secretary of state in 80 years. Her Democratic predecessors allowed straight-ticket voting, which until 2001 was mentioned in state law under a now-repealed provision that required lever-type voting machines to offer the option. New Mexico switched to a paper ballot voting system statewide in 2006.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in New Mexico, but it appears that they vote straight tickets at roughly similar rates. The voting ratios are fairly close to the 1.5-to-1 voter registration advantage held by Democrats statewide.
In Bernalillo County, which includes the city of Albuquerque, straight-ticket ballots accounted for 44 percent of the votes in 2010. Democratic straight-party ballots represented 25 percent of the total votes and 19 percent were Republican, according to the County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver. About a third of the state’s voters live in the county.
“It’s a practice that voters really have become accustomed to,” says Scott Forrester, executive director of the state Democratic Party, who maintains that Duran can keep straight-ticket voting through her general authority to determine the layout of ballots.
He views Duran’s decision as a partisan effort to make it harder for people to vote and confuse them when they show up at the polls.
“Without any public notification, without any kind of conversation with the public on such a big change, we just don’t think it should happen six months before an election,” Forrester said, adding that the party is considering a lawsuit to try to preserve the straight-ticket voting option.
The state GOP supports Duran’s “efforts to bring New Mexico into the 21st century,” said party spokeswoman Annaliese Wiederspahn.
“That comes from just the belief that voters are smart and that we shouldn’t underestimate the electorate. By allowing them to pick on every single ballot initiative, every single candidate, they get to have their say. That’s done by checking the box on every single race individually,” said Wiederspahn, who said she doesn’t see a big political gain for the GOP by eliminating the straight-ticket option.
“As far as helping us versus helping Democrats, I just don’t know that we’ll see that much,” she said.
Nationwide, only 13 states allow straight party voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Six states have abolished it since the 1990s, most recently in Wisconsin with GOP-backed legislation enacted last year that ends the practice for all but active duty military personnel and civilians living overseas.
In New Mexico, voters who cast a straight party ticket could deviate from it on individual races. A person voting a Democratic straight ticket ballot, for instance, could support a Republican in one or more races. The straight ticket option automatically filled in a vote in any partisan contest where the voter didn’t make a specific selection. A straight ticket didn’t cast a vote for a non-partisan ballot question, such as constitutional amendments, bond issues or whether to retain a judge in office.
Richard Winger of Ballot Access News, which tracks election laws nationwide, said the straight-ticket option hurts minor party and independent candidates, particularly for offices lower on the ballot such as legislative and county positions. Democratic and GOP candidates automatically pick up votes from people casting straight party tickets.
In November, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson will appear on the general election ballot as the Libertarian Party nominee for president.
Mike Blessing, chairman of the state Libertarian Party, said Johnson and perhaps other Libertarians may gain votes if people no longer can easily cast a straight-ticket ballot.
“People will have to analyze candidate versus candidate on the issues and such. I have a feeling there’s going to be less people voting Republican and Democrat this year because of that,” Blessing said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal