Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico’s secretary of state race has featured claims of zombies, aliens and election-rigging, with a dash of election hacking thrown in, to boot.
Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver is seeking re-election to a four-year term as the state’s top elections officer in a three-way contest that has seen a changing cast of characters – with the exception of her.
The race has also been marked by stinging criticism from Republican Gavin Clarkson, a fill-in candidate who entered the race in July. The third candidate, Libertarian Ginger Grider of Portales, didn’t enter the race until last month.
Clarkson, a professor from Las Cruces, has accused Toulouse Oliver of sanctioning voter fraud and attempting to rig this year’s elections by reinstating straight-party voting, a move that was blocked last month by a unanimous state Supreme Court.
His aggressive criticism of Toulouse Oliver at a recent campaign forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters in Santa Fe prompted the moderator to repeatedly ask him to tone it down.
Toulouse Oliver, a former Bernalillo County clerk, has largely brushed off the attacks.
“I think he’s just recycling old talking points from days gone by,” she said in a recent interview. “I haven’t heard any new allegations or evidence.”
The incumbent also said the state’s voter rolls are the most up-to-date they have been in years, while describing voter fraud concerns as overblown.
“Talking about it like it’s this massive systemic problem only serves to undermine voter trust in the process, and I think that’s a real disservice,” Toulouse Oliver said. “The reality is there’s no independent academic study that’s shown that in-person voter impersonation happens on a scale greater than people randomly being struck by lightning.”
However, Clarkson hasn’t backed off his claims that Toulouse Oliver has registered noncitizens – or “aliens” – and deceased individuals – or “zombies” – to vote.
In one case, an Albuquerque private investigator applied for and obtained absentee ballots in the names of three dead people in 2014, while Toulouse Oliver was county clerk. He was subsequently charged with perjury, forgery and other felony offenses, but the charges were eventually dismissed.
Clarkson, who replaced fellow Republican JoHanna Cox after she dropped out of the race, has also blasted Toulouse Oliver for her attempt to reinstitute straight-party voting, a practice that allows voters to select a major party’s entire slate of candidates by filling in a bubble at the top of the ballot.
Specifically, he described Toulouse Oliver’s decision to bring back straight-party voting as a “self-serving partisan move,” a claim she disputes. He predicted voters would be angered by it and other actions.
“They’re tired of a secretary of state who has weaponized her office against anybody she disagrees with, whether they be Republicans, independents, Libertarians or even moderate Democrats,” Clarkson told the Journal.
Since being elected secretary of state in 2016, Toulouse Oliver has implemented new rules aimed at requiring more disclosure of New Mexico political spending and testified before a congressional committee about the threat of hacking in elections.
The Secretary of State’s Office got $3.7 million from the federal government earlier this year and is using the money to create an election security program, staffed by a cybersecurity expert, intended to assist the state’s 33 county clerks.
On other issues, Toulouse Oliver has said she supports opening New Mexico primary elections to independent voters – only voters affiliated with a major party can currently participate – and has expressed support for moving the voter registration deadline closer to Election Day.
“If you look at it on the whole over the last several years … newly registered voters are choosing less and less to affiliate with a major party, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have an opinion or wouldn’t want to weigh in,” Toulouse Oliver said regarding open primary elections.
As for Clarkson, the Republican challenger has suggested he would largely defer to the Legislature on policy issues, though he did pledge to give free voter identification cards to all New Mexico voters, if lawmakers were to enact a voter ID law.
Clarkson has also emphasized a job creation message on the campaign trail, pointing out that the Secretary of State’s Office houses a corporations division that handles the filing and maintenance of certain business records.
“Everybody assumes the secretary of state is a county clerk on steroids,” Clarkson said. “The secretary of state is more involved in corporate formation than elections now, but most people don’t realize it.”
Grider, who replaced fellow Libertarian Sandra Jeff on the ballot, is a self-described former longtime Republican who “rediscovered” Libertarianism during the 2016 election cycle.
A volunteer for Gary Johnson’s 2016 presidential campaign and a medical marijuana licensee, she said she’s prepared to run again for secretary of state in the next election cycle after getting into the race late this year.
“Hopefully I’m going to inspire a few people along the way,” Grider said.
Toulouse Oliver is the only one of the three candidates to hit the airwaves with a TV ad and has a big fundraising advantage over both her opponents.
She reported last month having more than $169,000 in her re-election account. Clarkson reported having roughly $28,000 and reported lending more than $5,500 of his own money to his campaign. Grider has not filed a campaign spending report.
The incumbent also had a significant lead in a recent Journal Poll, as 46 percent of proven voters surveyed said they would vote for Toulouse Oliver. Thirty-two percent of voters said they would cast their ballots for Clarkson, while Grider trailed far behind, with 6 percent of voter support. The remaining voters were undecided.
Democrats have historically controlled the Secretary of State’s Office, which is in charge of enforcing state campaign finance laws and regulating lobbyists in addition to its election oversight duties.
Just two Republicans have been secretary of state since 1930, and Toulouse Oliver was elected in 2016 to finish up the unexpired term of one of them, Dianna Duran, who resigned and pleaded guilty in 2015 to using her campaign funds to cover a gambling habit.
The other Republican secretary of state was Brad Winter, an Albuquerque city councilor who was appointed to fill a vacancy in the office in 2015 by Gov. Susana Martinez but did not run for election the following year.
Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Dan McKay contributed to this report.
Q-and-A’s online: To find out most candidates’ positions on key issues, go to ABQJournal.com/election2018. The site also includes links to Journal stories on statewide, legislative and county-level races, district maps, key election dates and other voter resources. It will be updated regularly with new candidate profile stories and other information.