The justices unanimously concluded that the constitutional changes needed the approval of only a majority of voters – not the 75 percent that was believed to be required – because they expanded rights, not curtailed them.
“Because of the justices’ decisions, future amendments to the New Mexico Constitution that expand voting rights will require only a simple majority to pass,” said Meredith Machen, president of the League of Women Voters of New Mexico, which brought the case.
The court revived amendments that eliminate the mandate for separate school elections, replace the words “idiots” and “insane persons” to describe those prohibited from voting, and make it clear that the Legislature can provide for the restoration of voting rights to felons.
The ruling was a first, according to state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, a lawyer and former state elections director who represented the League.
“This is the first time there have been constitutional amendments that were held up in the process, where the court then … decided these are law, and have been law,” Ivey-Soto said, after the court heard arguments in the case.
The Supreme Court had done the reverse in 1936, ruling that a constitutional change that had been adopted in 1920 was not valid.
The changes approved by a majority of voters – identical amendments for school elections in 2008 and 2014, and a separate language modernization measure in 2010 – touched the provisions of the state Constitution known as the “unamendables,” which require approval by three-fourths of voters to be altered.
The League argued, and the court agreed, that a separate constitutional provision added in 1996 made it clear that the three-fourths mandate applies only when rights are being restricted.
Chief Justice Charles Daniels said the justices “don’t view any of these amendments … as diminishing the elective franchise, and therefore none of them require the supermajority in order to be passed.”
The requirement that school elections – for school board members, for example – be held separately arose because as of statehood in 1912, school elections were the only ones in which women were allowed to vote.
Supporters of holding school and local elections at the same time say it would boost turnout – which in school elections can be in the single digits in terms of percentage of registered voters – and be more efficient, allowing the cost to be shared.
But it would require changes to state law, which puts school elections in February of odd-numbered years, and school district officials and local governments would have to agree on the timing.
“We’re excited about it. We hope in the long run it means better turnouts for our elections,” said Chaves County Clerk Dave Kunko, who attended the hearing.
The ruling eliminates the lifetime disenfranchisement of felons that the old constitutional language provided and affirms the Legislature’s discretion to re-enfranchise felons, as it did in a 2001 law that allows felons to apply to have voting rights restored.
The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that up to 4 percent of the voting-age population in New Mexico is disenfranchised, and says they are disproportionately minorities.
There was no real opposition to the League’s lawsuit. The Advisory Committee to the New Mexico Compilation Commission, which was named in the suit, said it had no position on the merits of the case, but argued that the League should have sued the State Canvassing Board instead.