A sensible approach to nonpartisan elections

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By Merilee Dannemann


The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District held an election a few weeks ago. Though I don’t live, or vote in that district, the election reminded me of the inefficiency (dare I say lunacy?) of the way we hold special district, municipal and school elections in New Mexico. 

The turnout was predictably small. Turnouts for these single-purpose elections typically range from small to pathetic.

A few days later, the point about special elections was illustrated in a very public way by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. United States Sen. Frank Lautenberg died. To fill his seat, Christie scheduled a special primary, followed by a special election. The special election for senator will be in mid-October, three weeks before a general election. The cost to New Jersey taxpayers is estimated at $24 million. The second election could have been combined with that general election and saved the taxpayers half of that money.

How much do New Mexico municipalities, school districts and special purpose districts collectively spend on all the little single-purpose elections they hold?

Nobody knows, according to state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque. If anyone would know, he would. He is the executive director of the statewide association of county clerks. He said we don’t even have a comprehensive list of all the districts that exist, let alone information about their elections.

It is logical to combine all nonpartisan school, municipal and special district elections into a single election day, so voters can go to one polling place on one day every couple of years to select all these officials and — let’s not forget — vote on all local bond issues at the same time. 

New Mexico has finally taken the first step toward fixing this situation. The biggest stumbling block has been a provision of the state Constitution (Article 7, Section 1) that school elections must be held separately from all other elections. 

According to legend, the original purpose of that provision was to allow women to vote in school elections; women’s suffrage had not yet been adopted when New Mexico became a state, but school elections were an exception. 

A legislative resolution was passed this year to amend that restriction out of the Constitution (HJR 2, sponsored by Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park and Ivey-Soto.) This amendment replaces the old restriction with one that says school elections shall be held separately from partisan elections. The amendment will be on the general election ballot in November 2014. Some further statutory changes will then be needed, such as the law that requires school elections to be held on the first Tuesday in February.

If the amendment passes (that’s partly up to you) we can, as Ivey-Soto puts it, “have a conversation” about combining nonpartisan elections in a sensible way. One logical choice is to designate a day as the statewide nonpartisan election day — probably in odd-numbered years, the years we don’t have presidential or gubernatorial elections. 

A suggestion offered to me recently by a county clerk staffer was to set the election day in June, when schools are closed. Elections held on school days are a disruption for the schools, they said. Using the buildings in June would be much easier — a point worth discussing. 

Incumbent office-holders might not like this sort of change because, with many more voters showing up, they would be forced to work considerably harder to get re-elected. Perhaps a few turf wars can be anticipated, as well as a generally bumpy transition. 

It may be time for new folks to consider stepping up to run for all those local nonpartisan boards, with election reform as an element of their platforms.