Taking a simple approach

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Fixing New Mexico school elections the right way

By Merilee Dannemann

During the recent weather crisis, when schools were shut to save energy, several school districts were stuck going ahead with school board and bond elections. The voter turnout was as low as you guessed it would be.
It’s past time to change the way we run school elections in New Mexico. If we think systematically, perhaps we can solve several problems at once, increase voter participation, and save taxpayer money.  
The state Constitution (Article 7, Section 1) requires that “All school elections shall be held at different times from other elections.” To change this antiquated provision, we need a resolution passed by the Legislature and approved by the voters.
Measures are in the Legislature this year. The simplest proposal is in both House and Senate Joint Resolutions 16, proposing to remove the problematic sentence from the Constitution, leaving us free to figure out what to do next.
Two alternatives, HJR 11 and HB 450, propose to hold school elections by mail or to add them to the general election ballot. To both these measures, may I respectfully say no.      
Do you remember how long the general election ballot was last year? Let’s not add anything else to general elections, please!
Several years ago, the Ciudad Water and Conservation District, which hardly anybody had heard of, briefly stirred public outrage by holding an under-publicized and under-funded mil levy election, where angry voters stood in long lines because there weren’t enough polling places.
This well-intentioned group didn’t have the resources to run an election properly.
There are special districts like this all over the state: irrigation, water and sanitation, conservancy, even hospital districts. They have similar problems.
The same concerns apply to non-partisan municipal elections, when voter turnouts are usually discouragingly low.
What if all these little local elections were held together, sharing expenses and increasing participation?  
I proposed this some 15 years ago, but I let the idea languish. Now, with budget crunches on all sides, maybe New Mexico is ready for this simple approach. I call it “unified community elections.”
Experts in election logistics argue that it’s not possible to coordinate conflicting statutory dates, wildly incongruent boundary lines and different eligibility requirements.  
You simply can’t put together a ballot. To which I say, don’t try to produce a single ballot. Establish a “community election day” for all non-partisan elections. Let there be separate booths and separate ballots for each entity — paper ballots and cardboard boxes if necessary.
Let voters walk from booth to booth, voting where they qualify.
This method creates a draw for voter participation, encourages community groups and news media to pay attention, saves money by pooling costs of space and advertising, and gives voters greater incentive to take time to exercise the basic responsibility of citizenship.
Gee, they might even hang around and chat, like neighbors.
Over time, it will be possible to reconcile some of the inconsistencies and simplify further.
This is a call to action for everyone who is part of a special voting district. It’s your chance to jump in and get involved — by using school election reform as the springboard for all special district election reform.
Today, we just need HJR/SJR 16 to pass the legislature. Then we can talk seriously about how to get non-partisan elections right.

Merilee Dannemann
NM News Services