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Would-be candidate sues to get on ballot

SANTA FE – A former state lawmaker who wants to run for a seat on the Public Regulation Commission has filed a lawsuit claiming New Mexico’s signature requirement for independent candidates is too high, unconstitutionally blocking access to the ballot.

Bob Perls of Corrales sued the secretary of state in state District Court on Friday, saying state law is “unusually inhospitable” toward independent candidates and should be struck down.

Perls wants to run for the PRC’s Albuquerque-area District 1 seat in the Nov. 8 general election. But Secretary of State Brad Winter’s office rejected his candidacy after he failed to submit the required number of signatures.

Rep. Bob Perls, D-Corrales.

Rep. Bob Perls, D-Corrales.

Perls said he turned in 1,350 voters’ signatures on his nominating petitions. The requirement was 3,643 – about three times as many as minor party candidates had to collect, nearly five times as many as Democrats had to turn in, and eight times as many as required of Republicans, under the law.

That was “a tremendous hurdle to Mr. Perls’ candidacy, an unconstitutional barrier to the ballot that plaintiff could not meet with his available resources,” the lawsuit says.

New Mexico has one of the toughest signature requirements for independents in the nation, according to the lawsuit. Perls was required to submit signatures equal to 3 percent of the last gubernatorial vote in the district, in 2014.

“The additional requirements create a tremendous barrier to ballot access and have the effect of discouraging independent candidates” from trying to run, the lawsuit said.

New Mexico didn’t even allow independent candidates to run for office until the Legislature changed the law in 1977 – after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states must have procedures for independent candidates, and after independent presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy sued New Mexico in 1976 and won.

At first, the signature requirement was 5 percent of the last gubernatorial vote; that was lowered to 3 percent in 1991.

According to ballot access expert Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, very few independent candidates have qualified for the ballot in New Mexico over the past four decades.

There have been three presidential candidates, but no independent for any statewide office, including governor, according to an affidavit from Winger that was filed with the lawsuit. There have been two independent candidates for U.S. House and 17 for the state Legislature.

From 2001 to 2014, New Mexico had fewer independent and minor-party candidates for partisan state and federal offices than any other state except North Dakota, Winger said.

The Libertarian Party sued in federal court in 2006, claiming New Mexico’s requirement for two rounds of petitioning – one to get a minor party qualified and another to get its candidates on the ballot – violated the U.S. Constitution. It lost the case.

The Perls lawsuit contends the state Constitution provides broader protections than the U.S. Constitution in election law.

“I hope this case will force the Legislature to rewrite the election statutes in a way that is fair to all parties and candidates so that all elections have a better chance of being competitive, giving more voters more choices, increasing voter engagement and ultimately improving the quality of candidates and the functioning of local and state government,” said Perls, who served in the state House from 1993 to 1996.

The only candidate on the PRC District 1 ballot is Cynthia Hall.