Thursday, January 29, 2015

Public Campaign Financing for Legislative Candidates

Senator Peter Wirth and Representative Miguel Garcia have introduced bills to expand the public campaign financing system to include legislative candidates.

These companion bills would take the existing Voter Action Act and apply it to New Mexico's legislative districts just as it does for state PRC districts, with money allocated proportionally to the number of voters in the district, for both primary and general elections.

An elected official who used public campaign financing will feel accountable to the public at large, unlike an official who relied on big money contributions from special interests.

This system all but eliminates big money from elections. But problems remain, especially with the rise of dark money groups and the unlimited, unreported fundraising and spending that happens in the wake of the Supreme Court's faulty Citizens United decision.

The long term solution is a federal Constitutional amendment clarifying that money is not speech and corporations are not people.

In the short term, let's keep taking steps towards cleaner and more civil campaigns. SB 259 and HB 205 are good bills, and the legislature should pass them.

After all, they have already determined that Public Regulation Commissioners and Judges should make decisions uninfluenced by campaign contributions. Isn't that equally true for our lawmakers?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Goodbye Voters and Elections

In a blog entry last week, we pondered whether our state legislators shared our concerns about low voter turnout and ways to improve participation and make elections more fair. In week one of the state legislature, the new Republican majority sent out a resounding “NO!” to our query.

One of the first acts of business each year is staffing the standing committees. This year, however, the leadership decided to do more, and renamed or eliminated many committees.

Most importantly to followers of this blog: the House Voters and Elections Committee has been disbanded. Elections have been folded into the Government, Elections, and Indian Affairs Committee, leaving us wondering what happened to the aspect of the committee concerned with Voters?

Speaker Tripp will still have to send voting related measures somewhere, and we assume that will be the now transformed HGEIC.

Meanwhile, we wait to see what will be introduced to help elections attract more voters. After week one, we so far have a Voter ID bill (HB61, Rep James Smith), a bill expanding Motor Voter (SB13, Sen Jacob Candelaria), a bill “fixing” the public campaign financing system (SB58, Sen Peter Wirth), and a resolution for a constitutional amendment creating an independent redistricting commission (SJR1, Rep Carl Trujillo and Sen Bill O'Neill).

We will keep you posted- or visit to track these and other bills.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Citizens United Rally and Forum

Saturday, January 24, 4:00 PM

Rally for Human Rights, Justice and Campaign Finance Reform
at Girard and Central-around the Walgreens/Mannies area
walking up to Central and Washington to the School of Music

Followed by a night of discussion:
Get the MOP (Money out of Politics)
5th Anniversary of Citizens United
New Mexico School of Music
136-J Washington SE, Albuquerque NM

5:30: Doors open, light dinner is served, coffee, tea, baked goods
6:00: "Pay to Play: Democracy's High Stakes" will be shown
7:00: intermission/discussion
7:15: Panel with discussion

Moderator: Mary Smith, NM League of Women Voters

Panel: Albuquerque City Council President Rey Garduno
Former State Senator Dede Feldman
UNM Student/Youth Activist Juliana Bilowich
Executive Director Rio Grande Foundation Paul Gessing
National Organization of Women, Albuquerque. VP Cat Jabar

Hosted by:
The New Mexico chapters of Move to Amend, Common Cause, Public Citizen, Move On, WOLFPAC, PIRG, Progressive Democrats, ANSWER and Veterans for Peace, The Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, NM Advocates for Change, SWOP and Burque Medio

For more info, call Tom at 450-1268 or Sally-Alice at 268-5073.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

2015 Legislative Session

At Voting Matters, our main goals are reforms that will increase the number of voters who go to the polls. With the start of the legislative session this week, we wonder how many policymakers share our concerns.

One of the main reasons people don't vote is the lack of choices on Election Day. Fully one half of legislative seats in November 2014 were uncontested. Even the party primaries saw extremely low competitiveness: only 6 of 70 Republican party primaries had 2 candidates; 12 of 70 Democratic seats were contested last June.

One reason that voters don't have choices in November is the extremely restrictive ballot access laws on the books. In fact, New Mexico has had the lowest number of independent and minor party candidates on the ballot of any state over the past 7 elections- a mere 34 non-major party candidates running for federal, state, and legislative seats (according to Ballot Access News).

The other major obstacle that prevents voters from having choices is our ridiculous method of drawing legislative district boundaries. The blatant gerrymandering is so obscene that it has resulted in lawsuits in six of the past seven decades, at a cost of millions to taxpayers- and the results are still categorically unfair. The fact that not a single district had contested primaries for both major parties confirms what the voters already know- it is pointless for a Democrat to run in a Republican designated district and vice versa. We clearly do not have a democracy when it comes to state legislature elections.

There are two easy reforms that would lead us closer to Democracy. One would be easing the onerous requirements on minor party and independent candidates (independents currently need to gather signatures of 3% of the voters in a given district, a requirement which prevented a former member of the state's public education commission from getting on the ballot in 2014). The second positive reform would be creating an independent redistricting commission to redraw district boundaries- boundaries that could be drawn so as not to create noncompetitive Democratic controlled and Republican controlled districts.

Of course, if we want a true democracy that elects representatives for all the citizens (including the 22% who don't align with the two major parties), we need to switch to a system of proportional representation, like nearly every other modern democracy uses. This would move us away from the partisan gridlock that grips our legislative process and the vindictive nature of the two party system.

As this year's “long” 60-day session unfolds, we'll keep our eyes open for bills that will improve our elections and our government.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Santa Fe Municipal Redistricting

After Friday's blog entry on new electoral procedures being used for the first time last year, it came to our attention that the city of Santa Fe will be implementing yet another reform in the coming months: an independent redistricting commission.

City voters approved a charter amendment last year requiring independent redistricting commissions (no doubt in part due to the vindictive nature of the council's previous redistricting, in which one councilor was districted out of his seat).

The city is wasting no time in implementing the procedure. Having just annexed areas in the southwest part of what is now the city, new boundaries for council districts need to be drawn before the 2016 municipal election.

Members of the commission need to be registered city voters, and applications are due today. Seven members will be selected, and their work will be finished by June.

Friday, January 9, 2015

2014 Recap

2014 saw a couple of relatively new election law reforms being used, and two others still under fire.

At the state level, we saw a recount of the Land Commissioner election. This was the first ever “automatic recount” in NM history, triggered because the margin of victory in the race was less than one half of one per cent. The “automatic recount” law was part of a package of laws mandating paper ballots, voting machine audits, and recounts in close elections.

These reforms followed the illegally denied Presidential recount of 2004 (you may remember, the state canvassing board denied the recount demanded by the Green and Libertarian candidates. The Canvassing Board's denial was deemed incorrect and illegal by the state supreme court over a year after the fact).

The good news is that the Land Commissioner recount confirmed the accuracy of the Election Day count, with only a few discrepancies (see related blogpost of 12/22/14), and the pubic should have a renewed trust in New Mexico's Voting Machine Systems, now that we have recountable paper ballots and good audit and recount procedures.

Another example of a positive voting reform used successfully for the first time was Santa Fe's initiative process. Originally a part of the city charter adopted in 1998, and revised at the 2008 general municipal election, the initiative process allows citizens to petition for laws that the city council might not otherwise pursue. Similar procedures exist for referendums on council passed laws and for recall of elected officials.

In this case, advocates for reducing penalties for marijuana possession from a felony offense to a misdemeanor turned in sufficient petition signatures to require the city council to take action. The council had the choice of putting the question to the voters or to enact the law, and they chose to put the law on the books.

Public Campaign Financing
One other law supported by Voting Matters that has been getting a lot of attention in recent years is public campaign financing. Foolishly, the US Supreme Court held that a key provision of most public financing systems is unconstitutional. They hold that matching funds provisions put a “chilling” effect on nonparticipating candidates free spending rights.

Because of this ruling, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and the state are having to revisit their public campaign financing laws. We will have more to say about this in our legislative preview next week, as Senator Wirth has taken the initiative again to remedy this problem.

Of course, followers of this blog know that we think the real solution is a US Constitutional Amendment clarifying that money is not speech and corporations are not people.

Ranked Choice Voting
Lastly, we still hope for action in Santa Fe on implementation of Ranked Choice Voting, a charter amendment passed in 2008 with 66% of the vote. The city still insists they are waiting for voting machines with the necessary software to conduct the runoff. Yet they seem to be doing nothing to advance the purchase of that technology, which does exist and is used in other jurisdictions around the nation. Nor are they willing to simply use existing machines or do a hand tally shortly after Election Day to determine the winner of the runoff

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Electroal College, Revisited

The Republicans are on to something. For all of the wrong reasons, of course, but at least they are opening up a debate about the Electoral College.

There is a move afoot to manipulate how electoral votes are cast from states that tend to award their Electoral College votes to the Dems. The Republicans would like to imitate the Maine plan that awards Electoral College by Congressional District instead of awarding all of a state's votes to the highest vote getter.

While we have railed against the winner-take-all approach to elections for years, we don't see much value in the Republican model. Partially, because it is a piecemeal plan being presented for partisan gain, only being pursued in places which would benefit the GOP.

Now, if it were being introduced as a national system that would require all states to award their votes in the same manner, we could seriously consider it as a meaningful reform. Except that the other problem with the plan is in its method of allocating the Electoral College votes. As long as we have the current sick method of drawing Congressional Districts (and state legislative and other districts, for that matter), anything based on those districts is beyond questionable. It is downright unfair.

A better method for proportional representation of state's Electoral College votes would be mathematical. A strict ratio of Electoral College votes to votes cast on Election Day, as many states, including New Mexico, instruct the parties to use when voting at a Presidential Nominating Convention.

To take a real life example, we look at the state of Florida in 2000, the aftermath of which involved Supreme Court intervention, the blame game (how dare Ralph Nader run for President?!?), and unmitigated drama. How much simpler if Florida allocated its 25 Electoral College votes proportionally? 12 for Bush, 12 for Gore, 1 for Nader. No lawsuits, no drama, just a fair representation of the will of the voters.

The other option that bears mentioning is a national popular vote plan, advocated by FairVote and other good government groups. Abolish the Electoral College, count the votes, declare the winner. A much simpler and fairer plan, which, using Ranked Choice Voting, would ensure a winner with majority support even in the typically crowded field of Presidential candidates.

The key to success here is not the piecemeal plan advocated by Republicans for their own gain, but a national strategy that ensures fair representation of the will of the voters, encourages voter (and candidate) participation, and is transparent and easily understood. Yes, the Electoral College and winner take all systems need revision. Determining the best improvements is a national dialog that can result in an improved Democracy.

Friday, January 2, 2015

What is PNM Thinking?

This is an opinion piece I wrote that was recently published in several New Mexico newspapers.

New Mexicans breathed a sigh of relief last year in hearing that PNM would be closing down two of the dirtiest coal fired plants in the nation. Those two generators at the San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico are responsible for six million tons of carbon pollution in our skies every year, not to mention other pollutants like mercury, sulfur dioxides, etc.

Unfortunately, our relief was short-lived. PNM has a backward plan to make up for its loss of generating capacity from closing half of the San Juan coal plant. Rather than making an investment in clean, abundant solar and wind power, PNM has stuck with what it knows best- dirty, expensive, and dangerous coal and nuclear generators.

PNM proposes to derive more than 40% of its total generating capacity from coal through 2053! In addition, it will increase its use of nuclear power (created at the Palo Verde site in AZ) to 30%, while getting less than 4% from solar and no new wind.

At a time when the rest of the world is in a race to develop the most efficient technologies to lead the world into a cleaner and prosperous energy future, the powers at PNM are stuck trying to extract every bit of profit from coal and nuclear.

Of course, the system is a part of the problem. New Mexico has granted monopoly powers to PNM. In exchange for providing reliable electricity to its customers, PNM does not have to worry about competitors and is guaranteed a profit - a profit based on consumption, the more electricity they sell, the more they profit. And quite the profit indeed- have you seen their share prices and executive salaries lately? Pretty good for a “public service company.”

PNM's coal and nuclear plan needs the approval of the state's Public Regulation Commission. And the PRC has scheduled a hearing for January 5 to evaluate PNM's proposal, and to take public input.

Will the PRC take seriously its role as a regulatory agency to protect the public's health, safety, and welfare against unbridled corporate greed? Or will it act as a rubber stamp for the moneyed interests to continue to plunder the resources of our commonwealth and endanger public health.

The pitfalls are clear: a runaway corporate entity fueling climate change, polluting our land, air, and water, and leaving all of us dependent on its outdated thinking.

If the PRC does its job properly and rejects this antiquated proposal, demanding instead an investment in cleaner, cheaper renewable sources - the benefits are equally clear: a healthier environment, healthier people, a reduction in pollution, and an investment in green technologies that would create good paying jobs.

This last bit deserves more. If the politicians on the PRC step up and do the right thing, New Mexico will benefit greatly on the jobs front. If the PRC requires the investor owned utility to deploy renewable energy, we can create thousands of green collar jobs. Our high schools and colleges are already employing teachers and faculty in green technology. The solar industry is one bright spot in NM with home and commercial scale installers and skilled laborers experiencing meaningful work.

Please make your voice heard! The Public Regulation Commission needs to know that people are paying attention, and that we care deeply about both the economic and ecological effects of how electricity will be generated in New Mexico for the next twenty years.

Attend the January 5 public hearing at the PERA building in Santa Fe and submit written testimony. Call your PRC Commissioners and tell them to require PNM invest in advanced solar and wind today!