2021 has been a long year. Starting with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, it extended through attempts made by several state legislatures to erect barriers to voting and take back the authority to determine election results themselves rather than basing it on the tabulations of election officials—and votes cast by citizens. Here in New Mexico we are fortunate to have robust election administration at the state and local levels, with secure, accurate and accessible elections open to all qualified voters.
But that does not mean we need to rest on our laurels. This session, Common Cause will focus on strengthening some of the basic safeguards to democracy at the local and state level. Our priorities may not elicit much razzle dazzle, but we believe in adequately funding some of the protections we already have established in the new Ethics Commission and in the Secretary of State’s Office. We are also supporting a constitutional amendment that will protect local elections from capture by small minorities.
With no shortage of corruption in New Mexico, we need to give the state Ethics Commission the resources to hire two more lawyers and support staff to investigate and adjudicate claims, handle civil litigation and special projects. The commission is asking for a total of $1.27 million for FY 22-23 and we strongly support it. The commission suffered a cut in last year’s budget, which reduced its staff to five, in spite of statutorily required additional responsibilities. This year—in cooperation with the Legislative Council Service—it selected three members of the Citizen Redistricting Commission and staffed its meetings, which were praised for public outreach and participation.
Transparency is the first line of defense against conflict of interest and the violation of state laws. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of lobbying and campaign finance. We have worked hard to require public officials, candidates and lobbyists to file regular reports with the Secretary of State’s office, which must, by law, be posted on the web for all to see. Yet often the reports are inconsistent, incomplete or inaccessible, making enforcement difficult. We support funding for an additional FTE to audit reports more regularly and report discrepancies. The SOS is requesting $66,500 for this purpose. Seems like a modest proposal. We hope the budget will accommodate that request.
This year we are also supporting a constitutional amendment to amend Article 7, Section 5 of the constitution to allow local governments to modify their own election processes. This year marked the first election under the consolidated local elections plan passed by the Legislature in 2018. As hoped, turnout in smaller elections for water conservation districts, school boards and other lesser known local authorities increased dramatically. However, there were some unexpected consequences. Without a provision for run-off elections in school board races, for example, many candidates in multi-candidate fields won with far less than a majority of the vote.
Albuquerque and other municipalities rectified this problem with run-offs years ago. In Las Cruces and Santa Fe, these run-offs occur automatically on election night, thus sparing the taxpayers another election. Local governments should have the ability to set their own election terms, but a constitutional amendment is needed for this common-sense reform.
We expect this short session of the Legislature to be crowded with the budget issues made urgent by COVID. Important decisions must be made on how to spend the surplus. That’s why this year we’re sticking to the basics—for the sake of democracy.
Mario Jimenez is Campaign Director for Common Cause New Mexico. Common Cause is a non-partisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. It works to create an open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest; to promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and to empower all people to make their voices heard as equals in the political process. The views in this column are the author’s alone and do not reflect the views or opinions of New Mexico In Depth.