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NM special election system faces legal challenge

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots Nov. 3 in Albuquerque. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico illegally discriminates against independent candidates in special congressional elections by requiring them to collect thousands of petition signatures to secure a spot on the ballot, unlike major party candidates, according to a lawsuit filed this week.

The 12-page suit asks the court to block Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, New Mexico’s chief election officer, from enforcing the signature requirement in state law, arguing it violates the state and U.S. constitutions.

The lawsuit comes as New Mexico prepares for a special election to replace U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, a Democrat, in the 1st Congressional District. She is President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to serve as Interior secretary and expected to give up her House seat later this year.

Under New Mexico law, there won’t be a traditional primary election.

Instead, 1st Congressional District members of the state central committees of the Democratic and Republican parties will choose their nominees. The Libertarian Party may also choose a nominee in accordance with its rules.

But independent candidates must gather signatures from more than 6,400 voters to appear on the ballot – an unconstitutional barrier, according to the new lawsuit.

Attorney Ken Stalter filed the lawsuit in the state’s 2nd Judicial District Court on behalf of independent voters. The plaintiff is J. Edward Hollington, an independent voter from Bernalillo County.

“Stacking the deck against independents is not only anti-democratic, it’s unconstitutional,” Stalter said in a written statement. “New Mexico’s special election system is a holdover from a bygone era of insider politics and political patronage.”

Alex Curtas, a spokesman for Toulouse Oliver, said courts have rejected similar challenges to New Mexico’s election laws.

“This case does not offer a new legal argument,” Curtas said in a written statement. “An independent candidate is not similarly situated to a qualified political party candidate seeking to be included on a special election ballot. Qualified political parties go through a much more rigorous process to be included on the ballot and have already demonstrated a substantial level of support, unlike independent candidates.”

The 1st Congressional District is based in Albuquerque and covers part of central New Mexico. Haaland doesn’t have to give up the seat until she’s confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

At least one independent candidate has already announced plans to run – former state Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, elected as a Republican in 2014, though he changed his affiliation, at one point, to Libertarian.

Democratic candidates so far include state Reps. Georgene Louis and Melanie Stansbury, state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, attorney Randi McGinn, and Victor Reyes, the legislative director for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Radio station owner and host Eddy Aragon has announced a run on the Republican side.

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