February 15, 2018

Legislature OKs bill to merge various local elections

Vote early and vote less often.

At least, that is the hope behind a bill that was headed to the governor’s desk on Thursday to consolidate various local elections in New Mexico.

Under a compromise hashed out between the Senate and House of Representatives during the last couple hours of this year’s 30-day legislative session, election day for most cities, towns and villages — including Santa Fe — would not change from the usual date in March.

Conversely, the state’s largest city, Albuquerque, would have to move its elections for mayor and city council.

The bipartisan legislation’s backers say the goal is to boost turnout in local elections that often draw little attention and relatively few voters.

Under House Bill 98 there would still be early voting, but aside from municipal elections, most nonpartisan local elections for school boards and other local government entities would take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of odd-numbered years. In addition to school districts, that would include hospital districts, community colleges, arroyo and flood control districts, conservancy districts, soil and water conservation districts, watershed districts, and water and sanitation districts.

Lawmakers have tried for years to corral these various local elections. The Secretary of State’s Office says one county recently administered or assisted with 11 different elections in one year. But previous efforts have faltered.

Sponsored by Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, and Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, this year’s legislation seemed to risk a similar fate as the session neared its end.

The Secretary of State’s Office and various groups, including the League of Women Voters, said consolidating elections would ensure more people participate. But school districts argued that higher turnout might mean fewer people voting in favor of bonds or mill levies.

After it passed the House, a Senate committee amended the bill to move the date for various nonpartisan local elections from November to June. Lawmakers from Albuquerque pointed out that the change in dates would upend the city’s public financing system for candidates and changing that system would require approval from voters.

Though school boards had generally opposed changing the election date to begin with, they particularly hated the idea of moving it to June.

Rep. Dennis Roch, a Republican from Logan and a school superintendent, noted that schools are not in session during June.

Moreover, he argued: “November is what people think of as Election Day.”

Members from the Senate and House met two hours before the session ended and reached an agreement that would still move the local elections to November.

But it would not automatically change the election day for most cities, towns and villages, which currently vote in March. Those municipalities can opt in to the November election date, except for four that require some form of voter identification to cast a ballot — Albuquerque, Hobbs, Clovis and Rio Rancho.

Albuquerque, for example, would have to move its election so as not to clash with the November dates.

Conservancy districts would not move elections to November until after 2022.

And special elections would be held by mail and could be held on the same date as municipal elections.

Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a similar measure last year.

But Bandy said after Thursday’s vote that he expects the compromise will address the governor’s concerns regarding photo identification.

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