Voting, school election amendments and other unmentionables

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By Harold Morgan

Open voting in primary elections is the latest idea tossed into the policy conversation by Think New Mexico, the Santa Fe-based nonpartisan, liberal think tank.
Open voting would mean registered independents, or “decline to state,” as we call it, could vote in primary elections. A majority of states allow this, Steve Terrell of The New Mexican wrote April 28 in his blog.
Inclusion is the big reason for bringing independents into the primary election process. Besides, better candidates might emerge.
A candidate with broad appeal to the electorate might not be strong enough to win a primary, tilted as they are to the right and left. Democrats embraced the idea. The Republicans, always worried that someone could disrupt the tight cabal, whined that someone might game the system, which is true, but massively irrelevant.
A well-stated general rationale comes from Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, a Democrat from Albuquerque elected in 2012. “Voting is what legitimizes everything that government does,” Ivey-Soto said as we closed our conversation in his cluttered one-man office.
Fred Nathan of Think New Mexico notes that allowing independents to vote in primaries is called “semi-open,” while having every registered voter pick a primary (Democrats vote in the Republican primary, etc.) is “open.”
My visit with Ivey-Soto centered on the constitutional amendment (House Joint Resolution 2) proposing to allow changing the time of school board elections. Rep. Jim Smith, an Albuquerque-area Republican, was Ivey-Soto’s co-sponsor.
In HJR 2, the key language is, “All school elections shall be held at different times from partisan elections.” If passed, school elections could be moved from the dark of winter in early February and combined with, say, municipal elections, possibly attracting more interest. The result might loosen the vise of the education establishment, namely unions, on schools.
It’s worth a try.
Smith, a teacher, says he has been unhappy about school-election turnout for a long time. The cost of an election with tiny turnout troubles him, too. Smith and Ivey-Soto have known one another for years and were natural partners on the issue.
Ivey-Soto knows the issue. He was staff (“expert witness,” he says) for Sen. Michael Sanchez, Belen Democrat and majority leader, when Sanchez previously proposed changing the time of school elections.
That amendment “passed” overwhelmingly with 74.48 percent of the vote, except that it failed because of not quite gaining the required 75 percent approval required by Article 7, Section 3, of the state Constitution, the infamous “unamendables” clause.
It also failed, I thought, because it didn’t get the two-thirds majority required in each county. Knowledge of the two-thirds requirement came from “Governing New Mexico,” the standard university political science text and from reading the Constitution.
The scary lesson from talking to Ivey-Soto is that our state Constitution does not mean everything it says.
The two-thirds requirement was dumped in 1968 by the state Supreme Court, Ivey-Soto says, because it violated the federal one man-one vote standard. Turning to his computer, he looked up the case.
Neither my electronic copy of the Constitution, downloaded from the Secretary of State, nor the printed copy given me by House Speaker Ken Martinez mentions this detail.
If I understood Ivey-Soto, the voter residence requirements in Article 7, Section 1, are ignored.
All the more reason to dump the Constitution, I told Ivey-Soto. He disagrees, invoking the “be careful what you wish for” notion.
At this point, no special political effort is planned on behalf of HJ2, Ivey-Soto says. However, unlike 2008, the School Board Association, a key constituency, interest group, supports the amendment, providing a good start on the politics.
More political work is needed. That also means some money. These things don’t just happen by themselves.