Albuquerque voters made history last week.
Fewer people went to the polls than in any citywide election since 1974, when Albuquerque’s modern form of government started, according to city records.
The dismal turnout – just 8.2 percent of registered voters – has reignited debate over how to increase participation in New Mexico’s municipal, school and similar nonpartisan elections.
One idea is to consolidate the elections so voters aren’t asked to head to the polls so often in between the larger, statewide elections every other year.
By law, school elections cannot be held in conjunction with any other election – and attempts to change that have failed repeatedly.
Mayor Richard Berry said a broader civic movement is needed, though consolidated elections would help.
“The best way to solve this is for folks just to go vote,” Berry, a Republican, said Friday. “People have fought and died for centuries to give us this right.”
State Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, said a multi-pronged approach is necessary. The Legislature should consider allowing people to register to vote on the day of the election, registering people automatically and reducing the frequency of elections, he said.
Furthermore, Martinez said, candidates and elected leaders need to consider their own conduct.
“We have to inspire and motivate people to get out and vote,” he said. “The reality is, as political discourse sinks to the levels it has in the past with negative campaigning, I think it keeps people from coming out. That’s on us as candidates and politicians.”
Not just here
Timothy Krebs, a University of New Mexico professor who specializes in urban politics, said turnout in local elections is on the decline nationwide, matching the trend in Albuquerque.
The lack of competitive races – only two City Council seats were contested, and neither was close – is one factor in the low turnout last week, he said.
The mayor wasn’t on the ballot. Under the city system, the mayor and five council seats go on the ballot in one election, and two years later, four council seats go before voters.
There’s some evidence that partisan elections boost turnout, though that’s been less clear in recent studies, Krebs said. In any case, it wouldn’t hurt participation, he said.
In Albuquerque, the ballot doesn’t include candidates’ party affiliation.
“Election timing, whether the ballot is partisan and having everyone run at the same time (councilors and mayor) might improve the situation,” Krebs said, “and these things can be legislated, although it would be tremendously difficult.”
On the other hand, he said, “competition is affected by many factors, that, for the most part, can’t be legislated – money, the emergence of strong candidates, voter and group involvement” and similar factors.
The public financing system for campaigns, meanwhile, probably doesn’t provide enough money for mayoral candidates who want to challenge an incumbent, he said.
No easy fix
Amy Bailey, attorney for the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections, said consolidating school and city elections, even if allowed by law, isn’t necessarily an easy fix. It would require legislation by local agencies, too, to coordinate on election dates, ballot styles and other matters, she said.
“It wouldn’t just be a state-level issue,” she said. “It would cause issues on so many different levels.”
Modern advertising and marketing strategies might yield better results, she said.
Bailey, a former city clerk, used to run city elections in Albuquerque.
Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who runs the statewide elections held in Albuquerque, said the timing of school and city elections – neither of which is in November, the traditional election month – may depress turnout.
Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, suggested that the school district, city, flood-control authority and irrigation district – all nonpartisan agencies – could put their questions to voters all at once.
Just this year, for example, APS held an election in February, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District had one in June and Albuquerque had its election last week.
The Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority, meanwhile, runs its elections to coincide with the general-election ballot in even-numbered years.
But there’s no good reason all four elections must be held separately, Toulouse Oliver said.
“We built the nuclear bomb here in New Mexico,” she said. “We should be able to figure out how to create a global voter registration database for that kind of election.”
Don Duran, president of the Albuquerque Board of Education, said he’s open to ideas, including consolidation. He said he was speaking on his own behalf, not necessarily the board’s.
“Personally, I’m willing to try anything to boost participation,” he said. Winning a low-turnout election is “hardly a ringing endorsement for any candidate.”