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Big shift on tap for local governments, school boards

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – One school board election attracted no voters, not even the candidates themselves.

Other elections have had just a few dozen ballots cast.

But a proposal awaiting Gov. Susana Martinez’s signature – or veto – would reshape the political landscape for school boards, conservancy districts, cities and other nonpartisan local governments in New Mexico.

Their elections for candidates and questions would be consolidated onto one ballot and head before voters at the same time – in November of odd-numbered years.

Municipalities could opt out.

Some cities – Albuquerque and Las Cruces, for example – already hold their elections in the fall, making it a relatively easy transition if the bill becomes law.

Other agencies with taxing authority could not opt out and would have to consolidate their elections into one in the fall.

“This is about the voter – the voter knowing when an election is taking place and the voter having a say on how the voter gets taxed,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill. “They can’t make a choice if they don’t know when the election is happening.”

School boards would face some dramatic changes. Albuquerque Public Schools, for example, would have to move its board elections from February to November.

That could boost turnout several times over if Albuquerque holds its municipal election then, too, said Brian Sanderoff, a political analyst and president of Research & Polling Inc.

School elections might draw, say, 5 percent turnout on their own, he said, but municipalities often attract 20 percent to 45 percent. Campaign strategies, of course, would have to reflect the increased participation, Sanderoff said.

“School board candidates are going to have to reach out to a larger proportion of the electorate in order to get their message across and be successful,” he said.

That’s a concern for some.

The American Federation of Teachers New Mexico – a union that represents local educators – was neutral on the bill. But the group has some concern that school candidates and questions will be washed out in the broader election debate.

“We want more people to be participating in elections,” said John Dyrcz, a spokesman for AFT New Mexico. “We think that’s a critical part of the bill.”

But he said: “We want to keep the politics out of who’s running our schools.”

Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull said one risk of combining municipal races with other local issues is that voters may not be familiar with what they’re being asked to cast ballots on.

“When your ballot is long and confusing,” Hull said, “people lose interest in it. … We want to be able to articulate our ballot concerns without having them diluted with a lot of other questions.”

Hull said he expects Rio Rancho to opt out if the bill becomes law. Rio Rancho, like many other cities in New Mexico, holds its elections in March of even-numbered years.

House Bill 174 is also sponsored by Rep. James Smith, R-Sandia Park.

It passed the House 38-29 and the Senate 28-10. Neither vote fell along party lines.

Gov. Martinez, a Republican, has until April 7 to sign the bill or it’s automatically vetoed.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat and New Mexico’s chief elections officer, said the length of the ballot shouldn’t be a problem. Even at its most crowded, she said, there would be fewer local candidates and questions than on a typical general election ballot, which includes state and federal offices.

Besides consolidating election dates, the bill would make it clear that advisory questions that simply seek to gauge voter opinion are prohibited and that only a title or summary is needed when proposing an ordinance, not publication of the entire ordinance itself.

Cities that opt out of the Local Election Act could keep their requirement that voters show photo identification before casting a ballot in person. Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, Clovis and Hobbs have photo ID rules.

But cities would operate under the state’s less stringent ID rule if they participate in the consolidated election.

Special elections not held in November would have to be conducted by mail.

County clerks would oversee the elections.

The bill would be phased in over time, beginning next year. For most governments, the new election dates would start in 2019. Conservancy districts would get a few more years to move their elections.

As for the cost, local governments would pay a fraction of a percent of their basic operating budget into a fund that would be used to administer the new elections. But, with fewer elections altogether, supporters say, it should cost less than the current system.

Toulouse Oliver said the bill would help ensure elections are run consistently, at the same time and with the same rules. For instance, municipalities would have to offer provisional ballots to voters who show up to vote, but aren’t on the voter rolls.

Albuquerque would have to change its election date if the bill becomes law. City elections are now in October, but they’d have to move to either November to coincide with the new local election date, or the city could move its election to another time of year entirely – like late summer or midwinter. That’s because Albuquerque’s early-October election would fall within a 50-day “blackout” period that prohibits holding an election just before or just after the consolidated local election proposed in the bill.

But the goal of supporters, of course, is to quit having so many elections. By one estimate, Lea County elections workers were being asked to help in over 11 elections a year.

“It’s confusing for voters,” Toulouse Oliver said. “It’s hard for them to know when and where their elections are taking place.”

That was clear two years ago in the Hagerman school board election, in which three candidates ran unopposed for three open seats. No one cast a ballot.

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