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Lawsuit challenges straight-party voting option

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

SANTA FE – Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s decision to reinstate straight-party voting for the November general election has brought together an unlikely group of allies for a court challenge.

The New Mexico Republican and Libertarian parties, along with two outside political groups and a Democratic write-in candidate, filed a petition with the state Supreme Court late Thursday seeking to bar the straight-party voting option for the Nov. 6 election.

In the 25-page court filing, the petitioners claim that Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, overstepped her authority by bringing back straight-ticket voting without holding any public hearings. They also say Democrats stand to benefit from the move.

“Her action cannot be allowed to stand and cripple – without legal authorization or even publicly tested justification – the electoral odds of an entire class of candidates,” the petition says.

The straight party voting option could appear something like this on the November ballot. The 2010 ballot used a similar format, minus the Libertarian choice.

In addition to the state Republican and Libertarian parties, which both have major party status for this year’s election cycle, other petitioners include Unite New Mexico, a nonprofit formed to help independent candidates, and Elect Liberty PAC, an independent expenditure group created to assist former Gov. Gary Johnson’s U.S. Senate campaign.

Santa Fe Democrat Heather Nordquist, a write-in candidate running against Democratic nominee Andrea Romero in House District 46, also signed on to the court challenge.

After receiving the petition, the Supreme Court on Friday directed the Secretary of State’s Office to file a response in the case by the end of next week. The court also said it will set a hearing in the case at a later date.

Toulouse Oliver said earlier this week – just over two months before Election Day – that she was bringing back straight-party voting. The option allows voters to vote for a major party’s entire slate of candidates by filling in a bubble at the top of the ballot.

The secretary of state, who is running for re-election this year to a four-year term, said straight-ticket voting provides more options to voters and makes it easier for them to cast ballots.

She also said state law gives her the authority to make the change, specifically citing a provision in law that allows the secretary of state to decide the format of the paper ballots used in the election.

“The straight-party voting option isn’t a partisan issue; it’s an access issue,” Toulouse Oliver said Friday. “I’m committed to providing voters with as many options as possible to ensure eligible voters participate and to keep our democratic process strong.”

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.

Before that, then-Gov. Johnson had signed 2001 legislation repealing a law dealing with straight-party voting, though it was still offered to voters through the 2010 general election.

State Republican Party Chairman Ryan Cangiolosi accused Toulouse Oliver on Friday of taking self-serving action.

“Not only is straight-ticket voting an attempt to undermine free and fair elections in New Mexico; it is also likely illegal,” Cangiolosi said.

However, although a few Democrats have also criticized the move to bring back straight-ticket voting, the state Democratic Party has backed Toulouse Oliver. Party Chairwoman Marg Elliston accused Republicans on Friday of attacking a change intended to make it easier to vote.

“They do know that straight-party voting is voluntary and there’s an option to vote for all the Republicans or Libertarians on the ballot, right?” Elliston said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Supreme Court Justice Gary Clingman, a Republican who also is up for election this year after being appointed to the bench in April by Gov. Susana Martinez, has recused himself from the case.

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