February 8, 2018

House committee OKs bill to consolidate nonpartisan local elections

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Election Day is not just a day in New Mexico.

Between school boards, soil and water conservation districts, community college districts and hospital districts, it can seem like the voting never stops.

“We have a vast number of small, rural elections in our state happening pretty much all the time,” Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver told a committee of the House of Representatives on Thursday.

But whether people actually know about, much less participate in, these myriad elections is another matter.

In response, the local government committee of the House approved a sweeping bill that would consolidate virtually all nonpartisan local elections on the same day.

Backers, including the Secretary of State’s Office and county clerks, say the measure would boost voter turnout.

But school board members from around the state have staunchly opposed the bill, and others have raised concerns about ballots growing too long with candidates and questions.

Under the measure, House Bill 98, local elections would be scheduled for the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November during odd-numbered years. General elections for offices such as governor and president are held in November of even-numbered years.

The bill would include school districts, community college districts, flood control districts, special zoning districts, soil and water conservation districts and water and sanitation districts. In 2022, the law also would include conservancy districts.

Most town council and mayoral elections would be included, too, except for what are known as home-rule municipalities, such as Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Gallup. Those cities could opt in, though.

Though school districts could still choose to hold special elections for bonds, all special elections would be handled by mail.

Supporters contend the bill streamlines elections and would ensure more voters participate in the electoral process.

“All level of local government in New Mexico are raising our taxes with fewer than 5 percent of people voting,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s cosponsor. “I’m the former state elections director, and I’ve never voted in the Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation District’s elections [in Albuquerque] because I don’t know when their elections are.”

Ivey-Soto said ballots in such elections would not include more than seven offices — fewer than in a general election.

And he said this year’s bill may better address concerns raised by Gov. Susana Martinez about previous versions.

Specifically, the four city governments around the state that require photo identification to cast a ballot in municipal elections would still hold their own elections on a separate date.

But school districts argued the measure might undercut the support for bonds and board members. School elections are usually scheduled for February of odd-numbered years.

And more voters does not necessarily mean more informed voters, some board members argued.

The city of Albuquerque argued it would have to change the dates of its municipal election because of the city’s charter.

Conversely, others argued cities like Santa Fe may not see any benefit to changing the dates of its school elections.

Linda Siegle, a lobbyist for Santa Fe Public Schools and chairwoman of Santa Fe Community College Governing Board, questioned whether the bill would really boost turnout if the capital city’s government — one of those home-rule municipalities — is not included.

The college already works with the local school district on coordinating elections. That means Santa Fe would not see many elections combined, just moved from one end of the calendar to another.

“There is nothing to drive a higher voter turnout simply by having an election in November,” she said.

The bill also would impose fees on local governments for election administration. Siegle argued that, because schools in Santa Fe already coordinate on elections, the bill would end up costing those schools more money.

Ultimately, the measure cleared the committee with only one vote in opposition.

Rep. Daymon Ely’s reasons for voting against it may be the legislation’s biggest challenge.

The bill as introduced totaled more than 300 pages. Ely, D-Corrales, said he had concerns about rushing a bill with a pile of changes made shortly before the committee hearing.

Indeed, with the law touching various pieces of the electoral process, it may daunt lawmakers.

But the Legislature approved a similar measure last year with bipartisan support. It totaled 269 pages. Martinez never signed the bill.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.