Saturday, December 19, 2009

Party Primary Expenses

In Wednesday's Farmington Daily Times, New Mexico Secretary of State Mary Herrera reports that her office is lacking the funds to pay for next year's major Party Primaries. She estimates the cost at about $4 million.

This raises an interesting question. Why is the state paying for an election that includes only select voters? According to statistics published at the Secretary of State's website, there are 201,000 voters who choose to register in a minor party, or no party at all. That means that nearly 20% of all registered voters are prohibited from voting in primary elections.

So we put out the question- does the funding and the process of party primaries need to be reformed?

Monday, November 30, 2009

What if they held an election and noone showed up to vote?

That may sound like a rhetorical question in a nation that prides itself on democracy, but unfortunately 2009 elections turnout has been abysmal. Last week's special election to extend a Santa Fe county tax for fire and emergency services attracted only 2108 voters, according to official results posted at the county's website. Last March, only about 8500 citizens bothered to vote in an election to raise the tax on certain home sales in the city.

Holding these special elections costs the government between $30,000 and $60,000, and deal with important "pocketbook issues", yet the vast majority of our community either wasn't aware or wasn't concerned enough to cast a vote. These days, it couldn't be easier to vote. Voting on Election Day, voting early, and voting absentee are all options for people.

At Voting Matters, we'd like to see maximum voter participation in all of our elections. During the last session, the legislature considered a bill which would allow consolidation of school district and community college elections, which also have notoriously low participation. This would be an improvement. Alternately, special elections could be eliminated, and ballot questions should be included on the general election ballot.

We think it is time to bring everything to the table for consideration. Countries with higher voter participation should be studied, with the best solutions imported onto our elections. Some ideas worth considering are election day registration, election day holiday, fining nonvoters, and better election systems. One friend suggests we have neighborhood voting temples, shrines to democracy if you will, where all of us are expected to make regular pilgrimages.

Sounds like a good idea.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Straight Party Voting

Friday's edition of "New Mexico Politics with Joe Monahan" ( reports that there are not yet any Republican candidates for state executive branch positions of auditor, treasurer, or attorney general. Mr Monahan points out that in a state that is predominately Democrats, it is unlikely a Republican can win, though at the same time he mentions that there is a Republican Land Commissioner, and Republicans have held other state offices in past years.

We pointed out on this blog recently the inherently unfair districts created for US Congress, state legislators and county commissioners, districts intentionally designed to keep incumbents in office and maintain the balance of power essentially as it is now. While statewide offices do not share that problem, one contributing factor of this near one party rule in New Mexico is the straight party ballot option.

In New Mexico and many other states, general election ballots are printed with the option of selecting "Democrat" or "Republican", resulting in a vote for all of the candidates of that party. While this option may have had some validity in previous centuries, when information about particular candidates was harder to come by, in today's age of websites, mass mailings, and mass media, the straight party option has lost its usefulness.

Problematically, the straight party option is not only not useful, it may actually contribute to voter confusion. A look at random ballots from the 2006 general election revealed many instances of voters not understanding what that ballot option means. Many voters selected the straight party option and then went on to vote for all or some of that party's candidates in specific races, perhaps thinking the party line was asking to which party they belong. While this confusion resulted in unnecessary and redundant selections, at least they did not cancel those votes, as they had when voting on touch screen voting machines in past years.

In fact, the straight party option does not appear to be legal. Nothing in statute or in the Secretary of State's administrative rules specifies that the ballot contain a straight party line, and the decision of which parties are listed has been applied inconsistently.

Repeated attempts to eliminate this practice have been unsuccessful, as chairwomen Linda Lopez of the Senate Rules Committee has refused to even grant relevant bills hearings. One would think that if there is merit to keeping the straight party option on the ballot, its proponents would be willing to state those reasons openly.

We believe that our state's legislators and executives should do more to help voters make intelligent choices, but apparently they are content with a system that eliminates their need to campaign on the strength of their ideas.

Monday, November 16, 2009

You win some, you lose some

Ranked Choice Voting went one win, one loss last week in two separate city council decisions. On the other side of the Sangres, the Las Vegas city council approved a draft home rule municipal charter that includes Ranked Choice Voting for future local elections. The proposed charter will go before voters March 2, 2010.

But here in Santa Fe, the city council approved an election resolution that does not include Ranked Choice.

As outlined in a previous posting on this site, Santa Fe city clerk Yolanda Vigil and attorney Frank Katz conducted a thorough demonstration of Ranked Choice Voting that showed it can be done using existing machines. Nonetheless, they decided against implementation for reasons outlined in an October 29 memo to councillors.

Voting Matters has been encouraging the city to make necessary election code changes that would accommodate Ranked Choice Voting, such as increasing the canvassing period to ten days to allow time to conduct the runoff. But now the election is just around the corner and the council would probably not be able to make changes before the March 2010 election.

Ranked Choice Voting was approved by 65% of the voters after passing through three city committees and approval by a unanimous vote of the council. The city failed to act, and failed the residents of Santa Fe in this regard. It is unfortunate that they chose not to implement the clear will of the majority of Santa Feans.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Banning Political Campaign Contributions from Lobbyists and Government Contractors

Think New Mexico,, a multipartisan think tank based in Santa Fe, has just released a report on the influence of private money on our government. The report highlights historic and current scandals involving government contractors and those who lobby for them. Much has been in the news lately about “pay to play” politics, from the very top of state government to municipal and school board administrations, and the Think New Mexico report offers an effective solution to this abuse of tax payer monies.

Think New Mexico has correctly identified the mood of the electorate. In recent years, the legislature has enacted a gift ban and public campaign financing mechanisms for certain state offices. In addition, several municipalities have enacted campaign contribution limits and their own public campaign financing systems, all designed to limit the influence of private money on public decisions. Other areas of the country are also clamping down on rampant campaign spending by special interests, such as Humboldt California's complete ban on campaign donations by non-local corporate entities, commonly referred to as Measure T

The New Mexico legislation, which has yet to be written, would ban campaign donations by anyone receiving government contracts or subsidies, as well as all registered lobbyists. The legislation would include all state, county and municipal elections. It is clearly a step towards restoring citizen confidence in our governments, and Voting Matters will be supporting and reporting on this issue as it moves forward.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Public Campaign Financing in Albuquerque's Municipal Election

According to the New Mexico Independent, and other sources, the public campaign financing system used in last month's Albuquerque municipal election was a great success. This was the second time the system has been used in Albuquerque elections, and the first to feature the mayor's race. All three of the mayoral candidates participated in the system, which limited their spending to the $325,000 each received form the public campaign financing fund established by the city.

“The system worked as intended,” says Steve Allen, executive director of Common Cause, a government watchdog group. “It cut corrupting special interest money out of the mayoral campaign so that the eventual winner would not have to feel beholden to large private donors rather than the citizens of Albuquerque.”

The article goes on to address the role PACs played in the election and to discuss possible improvements to the city's oversight role. Another point of consideration is whether the system is too difficult to qualify for,as two well known potential candidates failed to gather enough $5 contributions. We look forward to the city's analysis of the system.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

It's Time for an Independent Redistricting Commission

I just received the monthly newsletter from NonProfit Votes and it contained some good information on independent redistricting commissions. With the 2010 census coming up, and a likely shifting of Congressional districts, now is a very good time to be considering how we draw district lines here in New Mexico. Everyone is familiar with the cynical expression, “it is not who votes, but who counts the votes” that determines election outcomes. The same can be said about who draws the boundary lines in single seat, winner takes all elections.

For example, New Mexico's Public Regulation Commission is composed of five voting districts that vary from 144,000 voters in district 4 to 272,000 voters in district 3. That means one commissioner represents nearly twice as many constituents as another equally powerful commissioner.

In addition to this discrepancy, NM PRC district 3 is composed of 58% Democrats and 27% Republicans, while neighboring District 2 is about 45% Republicans to 40% Democrats (the other 15% of voters are in another party or no party). Of the five districts, four heavily favor Democrats to the point that some districts frequently have uncontested elections after the major party primaries.

This phenomenon carries over to our state legislature even more dramatically. Usually, about half of the seats in our state house and senate go unopposed in the general election. In fact, unless a representative opts to retire, reelection is almost a foregone conclusion.

We are glad we are not alone in thinking this is a problem. Earlier this year, the League of Women Voters of New Mexico published a position calling for the use of standard, meaningful criteria for redistricting. In addition, they support the establishment of an independent redistricting commission to draw boundaries after each census.

Fortunately, we have some momentum to build on. In 2008, at the request of Voting Matters, a Senate Joint Memorial (SJM 23), was introduced by Senators Grubesic and Adair, a Democrat and a Republican. The legislation would have established a study group to look at redistricting and make recommendations to the legislature. The Memorial passed the Senate but died in the House Voters and Elections Committee. Now, the time for memorials and studies is past, and the 2010 legislature needs to create a multipartisan redistricting commission in time for 2012 elections.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ranked Choice Voting in Santa Fe

On Monday, Santa Fe city clerk Yolanda Vigil conducted a demonstration of whether it would be possible to conduct a Ranked Choice Voting runoff using existing voting machines and software. Ranked Choice was adopted by city voters in March 2008, with the condition that it could be done using machines, at a reasonable cost. Voting machines used in New Mexico are not capable of taking a ballot image, which would make runoff tabulation simple. Machines that are capable of doing so are not certified for use here, so, tallying a runoff will require a good deal of hand sorting of ballots and then feeding some ballots through the machines a second or third time.

The reason for the demonstration was to determine whether this method of vote tallying would be consistent with the charter and other laws, and whether it would be possible to conduct the runoff in a timely and efficient manner. The city is expected to have a decision by November 10, the date that the March municipal election is officially 'proclaimed'.

Thanks also go out to Automated Election Services for providing the ballots and memory cartridges and to Santa Fe county for providing machines and staff for the demonstration. After some preliminary discussions about voter education, how the runoff fits in with other election duties like the canvass, and how to deal with other issues such as overvotes and undervotes, the demonstration began.

Fifty ballots were marked for the demonstration, including three separate races with four candidates each. The ballots were then fed into the voting machine (ES&S model M100). This part of the process represents Election Day. “Election Day” results showed that a runoff would be required for the Mayor's race between Elvis Presslee(17), John Knee Cash (16), Alher Acain (10), and Sue B Honey (6), since none of those candidates received a majority. The next step was to remove the ballots from the ballot box and sort them into four piles based on first choice selections marked on the ballot (noted above in parentheses).

At this point, a new cartridge was placed in the voting machine, and ballots listing Sue B Honey were fed into the machine. The second choice votes were added to the previous totals, and still no candidate had over 50% of the vote total. Those ballots were then set aside, and the ballots listing Alher Acain as first choice were fed into the machine, adding those second choices.

In addition, any ballots listing Alher Acain and Sue B Honey as the first two choices were tallied counting the third choice votes on those ballots, by inserting a new memory cartridge and feeding those ballots through the machine. Now the tally could be finalized, and Elvis Presslee won with 28 votes compared with 21 for John Knee Cash. (one ballot was spoiled because the voter made two selections for first choice).

The conclusion: it is possible to conduct a runoff using Ranked Choice Voting as adopted by the city. There are some logistical issues that need to be resolved. There is nothing to prevent the city from implementing Ranked Choice that can't be resolved through administrative rules or an ordinance.

We at Voting Matters certainly hope that Santa Fe will implement Ranked Choice Voting for the March 2010 election, which appears very likely to have more than two candidates in at least two of the five races on the ballot.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Public Campaign Financing system approved for Santa Fe Municipal Elections

Wednesday night, the Santa Fe city council passed an ordinance creating a system of public campaign financing for municipal elections. It is based on the state's Voter Action Act and Albuquerque's system of publicly financed campaigns. Albuquerque's recent municipal election had all three mayoral candidates and a majority of council candidates using public campaign financing.

Beginning in Santa Fe's 2012 election, if candidates for city council and municipal judge successfully petition to get on the ballot and collect enough qualifying contributions to show they have a level of community support, they will receive $15,000 to run their campaigns, if they also agree not to accept any other donations. In 2014, the system will be expanded to include the mayor's race.

Santa Fe has considered public campaign financing since the adoption of its charter in 1997. Public campaign financing is one of seven amendments to our city charter passed by the voters in March 2008. It is great that the city council followed through and established a meaningful system to minimize big money contributions to political candidates while ensuring that candidates have a substantial amount of community support before receiving any public monies.