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NM counties wade into ballot debate

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Some New Mexico county clerks are facing political pressure over Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s decision to bring back straight-party voting for the November general election.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

County commissioners in seven New Mexico counties were poised Tuesday to approve resolutions opposing straight-party voting and urging county clerks not to certify ballots with the straight-party option.

However, multiple clerks said they have little – if any – authority on the issue, which is already the subject of a Supreme Court challenge filed by the state Republican and Libertarian parties, along with other groups.

“They kind of put us between a rock and a hard place,” Eddy County Clerk Robin Van Natta told the Journal after county commissioners there approved an anti-straight-party voting resolution. “Nobody really asked us our opinion.”

In a Tuesday memo to county clerks statewide, the executive director of the Clerks Affiliate of the New Mexico Association of Counties said clerks do not have the authority to decide whether to include the straight-party voting option on the Nov. 6 ballot, even if instructed to do so by county commissioners.

Daniel Ivey-Soto, who is also a Democratic state senator, said the state’s highest court is the appropriate arbiter of whether Toulouse Oliver overstepped her authority by reinstating straight-ticket voting.

“Attempts at local variations on a statewide issue are futile and counterproductive,” he said. “It is incumbent on each county clerk to abide by whatever decision is issued by the Supreme Court.”

Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said last week – just over two months before Election Day – that she was bringing back straight-ticket 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.

However, the move quickly came under fire from top state Republicans and Libertarians, who claim Toulouse Oliver had overstepped her authority by bringing back straight-ticket voting without holding any public hearings. They also argue that Democrats stand to benefit from the move.

They then filed the petition with the Supreme Court, which is expected to act quickly to resolve the case. Supreme Court justices will hear arguments in the case next week and could announce a decision shortly thereafter.

With the Supreme Court case pending, Republican secretary of state candidate Gavin Clarkson, along with the Republican and Libertarian candidates for attorney general, called last weekend on county clerks statewide to refuse to certify for printing any ballot that contains the straight-party voting option.

The memo issued by Clarkson was then provided to county commissioners in the seven counties set to approve resolutions opposing straight-party voting – Doña Ana, Eddy, Lea, Curry, Roosevelt, Chaves and San Juan.

But some county clerks said defying the secretary of state would be legally problematic.

Lea County Clerk Keith Manes said Tuesday that he opposes straight-ticket voting but that he and other clerks can’t unilaterally reject components of the statewide ballot.

“The ballots have to be uniform throughout the state,” Manes said Tuesday. “I have no authority there.”

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.

Roosevelt County Clerk DeAun Searl said she’s concerned that reinstating straight-party voting this close to the election could cause widespread voter confusion, but she said it’s not up to her to make the legal determination.

“I, by law, cannot pick and choose what’s on a ballot,” she said “We’re all waiting on the Supreme Court.”