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Voter turnout up in consolidated election

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Voter turnout for school and city elections is often dismal.

In 2015, just 8% of Albuquerque’s registered voters participated in an election that filled four City Council seats and raised taxes to support the BioPark. A school board race earlier that year attracted half that many people – less than 4% of eligible voters.

Pamela Watt casts her ballot at Bandelier Elementary School on Tuesday while her 3-year-old daughter, Saskia Watt, waits. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

By those standards, Tuesday’s consolidated local election – the first under a new state law – was a stunning success.

Nearly 24% of Bernalillo County’s registered voters cast ballots on City Council and school board races, bond packages to finance public works and other local questions. Turnout reached 18% statewide.

“I thought it exceeded all expectations,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the 2018 Local Election Act. “What we discovered with consolidating these elections together is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

But there are still some snags to smooth over. In two precincts in Taos County, voters entitled to vote on a property tax for Northern New Mexico College didn’t get the question on their ballot.

And there were a few instances of voters elsewhere in the state getting an extra item on the ballot they weren’t supposed to have, officials said, though the error wasn’t expected to change any outcomes and will be fixed in canvassing.

Ivey-Soto, executive director of the Clerks Affiliate of the New Mexico Association of Counties, said miscommunication caused the Taos County problem. But hiccups were to be expected, he said, given the number of entities – big and small – participating in Tuesday’s election.

The Local Election Act was designed to boost turnout and simplify election season for voters. Instead of asking people to head to the polls several times a year, local elections, for the most part, would be moved to one day in November.

The legislation picked up bipartisan support and was signed into law by then-Gov. Susana Martinez.

But the new law also meant extra work for county clerks and the Secretary of State’s Office. Election officials throughout the state had to work with school districts, community colleges, soil and water districts, and other agencies to get their items before voters within their jurisdiction.

Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover said the consolidated ballot surprised some voters. Residents in the Paradise Hills neighborhood, for example, had the board of a special zoning district to decide on – an agency many residents didn’t even know existed.

“We had things on our ballot that nobody had even seen before,” Stover said.

The county, she said, started training its poll workers earlier than usual to help prepare for the complexity of the local election.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a former Bernalillo County clerk, said she expects her office to make some changes in the 2021 cycle to work more closely with clerks to ensure every voter gets the right ballot combination.

She said she has other ideas to improve the next local election.

“I think it was a very good start,” Toulouse Oliver said.

Municipalities had the option of participating this year, and Toulouse Oliver said she hopes more will opt-in next time. Gallup and Silver City, for example, are among the cities that plan to hold elections in the spring.

The move to consolidated local elections might also push cities to embrace ranked-choice voting – as a way to avoid having to hold a runoff election in December.

Two City Council races in Albuquerque, for example, are set to be decided Dec. 10 because no candidate got a majority of votes this week.

Las Cruces and Santa Fe, however, now use ranked-choice voting – a system that produces a winner through an “instant runoff” of sorts. Voters rank the candidates in order of preference.

Albuquerque city councilors narrowly rejected ranked-choice voting earlier this year.

Tuesday’s consolidated election was also the first to offer same-day voter registration, in limited circumstances. Voters at a clerk’s office or an early voting site – depending on the community – could register to vote or change their registration and cast a ballot.

The Local Election Act left unchanged the larger partisan elections that occur in even-numbered years. New Mexico’s primary election remains in June, and the general election is in November.

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