This guest commentary is presented by Heath Haussamen from New Mexico Politics. All links listed in the commentary will remain for this publication.
Elections systems should make voting easy for qualified voters, but not at the expense of encouraging people to make informed decisions.
The state’s recent move to consolidate most local elections is an important change because it simplifies voting and empowers people. Starting in 2019, New Mexicans will have an easier time knowing when elections are held. Because they have to keep track of one election instead of several each year, they’ll have an easier time learning about candidates and issues.
So it’s disappointing that Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver plans to bring back straight-party voting in New Mexico. A system that encourages punching a party ticket instead of selecting individual candidates doesn’t empower voters. It protects dominant parties.
Former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a Republican, eliminated straight-party voting in 2012. That wasn’t a surprise. Regardless of ideology, the party in the minority tends to be more open to enabling voters.
It’s also no accident a Republican, whose party usually benefits from not having straight-party voting in New Mexico, undid that system. In recent years, Republicans have held greater control of state government than at any previous point in history.
Similarly, with a Democrat back in control of the Secretary of State’s Office, it’s no accident that we’re moving back to a system that benefits Democrats.
But there’s a hiccup in that logic. The Libertarian Party also has major-party status and candidates on the ballot in New Mexico this year. Straight-party voting could benefit Republicans by discouraging right-leaning voters from selecting a Libertarian or two on their ballot.
Therein lies the rub. Even if Democrats benefit more because they’re the dominant party in New Mexico, Republicans also benefit from a system that discourages people from supporting independent and minor-party candidates. Our elections protect the two-party system.
Many voters don’t like it. In February, 46 percent of the state’s 1.2 million registered voters were Democrats and 29 percent were Republicans. The remainder — more than 25 percent — were independents, Libertarians or members of minor parties.
And yet New Mexico has some of the more restrictive ballot-access laws in the nation for minor party and independent candidates. The only reason Libertarians have major-party status is the anomalous 2016 presidential candidacy of Gary Johnson. Libertarians probably won’t keep that status for long.
All taxpayers, regardless of voter registration, fund primary elections for the major parties, even though independents and members of minor parties can’t participate. That’s another system that protects the major parties from voters. If all voters can’t pick a primary and cast a ballot, then parties, not taxpayers, should pay for them.
As for straight-party voting, the Secretary of State’s Office says ballots can be “long and complicated, and straight party voting makes it easier for the elderly and disabled to complete their ballots.”
While casting a ballot should be easy, the system should encourage thoughtful decision-making.
We’re doing that for the elderly and disabled. In 2017, New Mexico enacted legislation to increase absentee voting access for people who are visually impaired and allow online absentee ballot applications for people who want or need to fill out ballots at home.
We’ve enacted positive reforms in recent years, including election consolidation that could help break up local fiefdoms that have long depended on low voter turnout. But reinstating straight-party voting, which only nine states currently allow, isn’t a step in that direction.
I’d like to see more efforts to empower voters, not prop up the two-party system.
Heath Haussamen is NMPolitics.net’s editor and publisher.
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