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AG defends secretary of state in ballot dispute

SANTA FE – Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s decision to bring back straight-party voting for the November election does not run counter to state law or constitutional equal protection rights, Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office argued in a court brief filed Friday.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

The New Mexico Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments next week in a court challenge filed by an unlikely group of allies in an attempt to bar the secretary of state from reinstating the straight-ticket voting option.

As part of that lawsuit, the state’s highest court had set a Friday deadline for the secretary of state to file a response to the claims raised by the petitioners – the state Republican and Libertarian parties, an independent expenditure group created to assist former Gov. Gary Johnson’s U.S. Senate campaign, a nonprofit formed to help independent candidates and Democratic legislative write-in candidate.

In the 25-page response, Assistant Attorney General Sean Cunniff argued that New Mexico lawmakers never barred straight-party voting despite approving a 2001 bill that repealed a section of the law dealing with lever-type voting machines. That section of the law included a reference to straight-ticket voting.

In addition, he cited a federal District Court ruling in 2009 that upheld the constitutionality of straight-party voting after it was challenged by the state Libertarian Party and others.

“This is a reasonable way for voters to make decisions and is protected by these voters’ First Amendment right to associate with the political party of their choice,” the AG’s Office wrote in its response.

Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat who is running for re-election this year to a four-year term as secretary of state, announced Aug. 29 – just over two months before Election Day – that she was bringing straight-party voting back for the Nov. 6 general election.

She has argued that the option, which allows voters to vote for a major party’s entire slate of candidates by filling in an oval at the top of the ballot, provides more options to voters and makes it easier for them to cast ballots. She also claims state law gives her the authority to make the change.

However, the timing of her announcement combined with the fact that many states have been moving away from straight-ticket voting in recent years has prompted sharp criticism.

At least seven New Mexico county commissions passed resolutions this week opposing straight-party voting and calling on county clerks not to approve any ballots that include the option.

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.

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