SANTA FE – New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said Wednesday that she will bring back straight-party voting for the November general election, a decision that touched off fiery political debate and prompted the state Republican Party to promise a court challenge.
Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, informed county clerks about the move Wednesday – just over two months before the Nov. 6 election – and told the Journal it is intended to give more options to voters.
She also said she is prepared to defend the decision in court in the case of a lawsuit, and she said her office decided to implement straight-party voting without a rule change, which would have required public hearings.
“As secretary of state, I am committed to making it easier – not harder – for New Mexicans to vote,” Toulouse Oliver said. “From moms juggling work and kids to elderly veterans who find it hard to stand for long, straight-party voting provides an option for voters that allows their voices to be heard while cutting in half the time it takes them to cast their ballot.”
But state Republican Party Chairman Ryan Cangiolosi blasted the move as politically driven, claiming it could bolster Toulouse Oliver’s own re-election bid.
“Straight-ticket voting is an attempt to rig the system in favor of Democrats and turn New Mexico into a one-party state,” said Cangiolosi, who added that the state GOP would file a lawsuit in an attempt to prevent the implementation of straight-ticket voting.
New Mexico Libertarian Party Chairman Chris Luchini said his party was considering filing a lawsuit, describing the reinstatement of straight-ticket voting as “naked partisanship.”
Many other states have abolished straight-party voting in recent years. As of May 2017, just nine states still provided the option to voters, and Texas is scheduled to do away with it in 2020, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
New Mexico previously used the straight-party voting option for decades, but then-Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a Republican, eliminated it in 2012, saying the state election code did not specifically allow the practice. Several bills were subsequently proposed in the Legislature to authorize it, but none was signed into law.
Toulouse Oliver, who was elected in 2016 and is running for a new four-year term this year, had previously vowed to bring back the straight-ticket voting option and said she researched the issue thoroughly before taking action.
The Secretary of State’s Office says state law gives Toulouse Oliver the authority to make the change, because a provision in law allows the secretary of state to decide the format of the paper ballots used in the election. Under state law, the deadline to modify this year’s ballot is next Tuesday.
Voters who elect to use the straight-party option – by filling in a bubble next to the party’s name on the top of a ballot – can still vote for a candidate from a different political party in any given race and have that vote counted accordingly, Toulouse Oliver said.
“We’re going to make sure there are instructional materials in every voting booth in the state to explain how it works,” the secretary of state said in an interview Wednesday.
Critics of straight-party voting say the practice gives an unfair advantage to major-party candidates – especially Democrats – over those who are independent or affiliated with minor parties.
Several high-profile candidates criticized the decision to bring back straight-ticket voting, with Republican gubernatorial nominee Steve Pearce calling it an attack on democracy, and Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Gary Johnson describing it as a “worn-out staple of major-party incumbents.”
As New Mexico governor in 2001, Johnson signed legislation repealing a law that provided for straight-party voting, though it was still offered to voters through the 2010 general election.
Meanwhile, at least one Democrat, state Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque, also expressed disagreement Wednesday with the secretary of state’s decision, tweeting that straight-ticket voting would provide a “partisan advantage in low-information elections.”
The state Democratic Party’s chairwoman, Marg Elliston, backed up Toulouse Oliver, though, saying the change would allow more New Mexicans – including those with disabilities and the elderly – to cast ballots.
And Toulouse Oliver herself disputed the claim that straight-party voting benefits Democrats, pointing out that two Republicans – Duran and outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez – were elected to statewide office in 2010, the most recent year the option was available to voters.
“There is literally no data showing that’s the case whatsoever,” the secretary of state told the Journal.
Overall, more than 1.2 million New Mexicans were registered to vote as of July 31, and Democrats hold a decisive edge in numbers.
There were 570,542 Democrats – or about 46 percent of the state’s registered voters – compared with 378,695 Republicans – slightly more than 30 percent of voters – and 8,796 Libertarians, who also have major-party status for this year’s election cycle.
Voters who declined to state their political affiliation or are affiliated with minor political parties made up the remaining 23 percent of New Mexico voters – about 284,000 people fit into that category.