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GOP, Libertarians, PAC, Democratic candidate file lawsuit to stop secretary of state's straight-party voting

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By The Staff

The Republican Party, Libertarian Party of New Mexico, Elect Liberty, PAC, and a Democratic Party candidate for state office is expected to file a request for injunction Thursday, asking the courts to put a stop to Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s move to institute straight-party ticket voting for the upcoming general election.

The injunction is expected to be filed by the end of the day with the state Supreme Court in Santa Fe, according to paperwork provided to the Los Alamos Monitor. Toulouse Oliver announced Wednesday she's formatting the ballots to allow voting in which a slate of major party candidates can be chosen all at one time.

The move drew immediate criticism from candidates in all parties throughout the state who called it partisan maneuvering. Some critics even questioned the legality of Toulouse Oliver's decision and threatened legal action, pointing to a vote by the Legislature in 2001 to abolish straight-ticket voting.

Libertarian Party of New Mexico Chair Chris Luchini, who is running for Los Alamos County sheriff, said the party was “deeply concerned” about Toulouse Oliver’s decision.

“It is so transparently partisan,” he said.

The state Republican and Libertarian parties were joined by two others in the court filing. Elect Liberty, PAC, is a political action committee working on behalf of Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Gary Johnson.

Democrat Heather Nordquist, a write-in candidate for New Mexico House District 46, is running against Andrea Romero. Nordquist is a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist who lives in El Rancho.

Toulouse Oliver made the decision without a public hearing, which is part of the mandatory state process and decided to make the change 66 days before the election, Luchini said.

“We are deeply concerned by the abuse of power via executive fiat that the Secretary of State with the support of the Attorney General is engaged in a blatant act of self-dealing to give their political party an advantage in this election,” Luchini said. “This effort is clearly an attempted to interfere with our major party status and to disadvantage our candidates’ prospects, up and down the ballot, of winning any election to public office in New Mexico.”

State Libertarian Party Vice Chairwoman Helen Milenski, who is running for a seat on the Los Alamos county council, added, “it is hard to believe that our Secretary of State would behave in such a fashion so as to ignore the clear intention of the Legislature to remove straight-ticket voting from the ballot. Her imposition of straight-ticket ballots shows preferential partisan motive and disregard for the will of New Mexico Legislature. If she cannot behave in a more non-partisan manner, she should step down from seeking reelection and allow a person who can behave professionally to conduct New Mexico’s elections.”

Former Gov. Gary Johnson signed that legislation nearly two decades ago and is now running as the Libertarian Party's nominee for the U.S. Senate. "Pushing voters toward straight ticket voting is a worn-out staple of major party incumbents and flies in the face of the reality that the great majority of voters are independent-minded and don't need or appreciate a ballot that provides a short-cut to partisanship," Johnson said in a statement.

Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat who is running for re-election, argued that bringing back straight-ticket voting will make it easier for eligible voters to participate. She also argued that state law gives her office administrative authority to decide the format of the paper ballots that are used in New Mexico elections. Many Republicans regard the practice of straight-ticket voting as unfair to individual candidates in New Mexico, where registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans.

The New Mexico Republican Party denounced the move, calling it a corrupt attempt to overturn a law that was passed by the state Legislature in 2001, and vowed to take legal action.

“Straight ticket voting is an attempt to rig the system in favor of Democrats and turn New Mexico into a one-party state," said state Republican Party Chairman Ryan Cangiolosi. "The Secretary of State's announcement is a blatantly partisan effort to that will unfairly benefit her own re-election bid. The legislature outlawed straight ticket voting in 2001 through a change in New Mexico's election law.

“The hasty attempt to bring it back is likely illegal and we will take appropriate legal action," Cangiolosi said.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce said the move would disenfranchise voters. “Today, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver attacked democracy with a partisan move to rig elections and disenfranchise voters,” Pearce said. “I call on my opponent, Michelle Lujan Grisham, to stand up for fair elections and join with me in denouncing this corrupt, anti-democratic act. The voters of New Mexico deserve free and fair elections not blatantly partisan and corrupt public officials. Maggie Toulouse Oliver's actions are creating a grave crisis in democracy of our state."

Also at stake is the growing block of independent voters who are not aligned with any party. They now make up nearly a quarter of the voter rolls. Toulouse Oliver dismissed the partisanship arguments.

"I don't think that party registration really has anything to do with this because a voter can opt to vote a straight ticket of a party they're not registered to vote in or they can vote individual races up and down the ballot," she said. "It's really about them having the choice and the option to do either one."

Voters historically could choose to support a party's entire slate of candidates by making just one mark on the ballot or pressing a single button or lever on a machine. Straight-party votes accounted for 41 percent of ballots cast statewide in the 2010 general election.

At that time, about 23 percent of the election's total votes were Democratic straight-ticket ballots and 18 percent were Republican, according to data from the secretary of state's office. In 2012, then-Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a Republican, did away with the option because her office said there was no provision in state law specifically authorizing it.

Duran's decision also caused an uproar. In fact, the head of the state Democratic Party at the time accused her of making the decision without having a public conversation and said such a change shouldn't happen just months before an election.

While early voting in New Mexico is less than two months away, Toulouse Oliver argued that the circumstances are different now and that she's providing another tool for voters. Still, straight-party voting is a vanishing practice. Nationwide, only nine states allow it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Several states have abolished it since the 1990s, most recently in Texas with legislation enacted last year that will take effect in 2020. Toulouse Oliver said she researched the issue and found that in Michigan, that state's supreme court reinstated straight-ticket voting citing the potential disenfranchisement of some voters.

Cangiolosi questioned Toulouse Oliver's motive, saying she is charged with overseeing the state's elections while also participating as a candidate.

"It undermines any confidence New Mexico voters can have in the fairness of this election," he said.

Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque, who is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also voiced concerns in a social media post saying he wasn't a fan of straight-party voting.

"It's not a matter of voter convenience; it's a matter of partisan advantage in low information elections," he wrote. "Our country needs less vicious partisanship, not more."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been changed to reflect that the paperwork is expected to be filed by the end of the day Thursday with the court in Santa Fe.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.