If you listen to either candidate for New Mexico’s secretary of state speak with her supporters, you might get the impression that the race for our statewide chief election official is a referendum on so-called voter ID laws.
Republican Nora Espinoza, a state representative from Roswell, and Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the Bernalillo County Clerk, have traded barbs on campaign finance, missing forums and their relative experience or inexperience. Both parties have filed ethics complaints against the opposing party’s candidate, though neither succeeded.
But during fundraisers, the issue du jour remains whether voters should be required to present photo identification before casting a ballot.
Republicans frame it as a matter of electoral integrity. They say requiring citizens to present identification at precinct stations prevents voter impersonation. And their messaging has been successful. (Fifteen states have passed photo ID requirements in recent years. Meanwhile, about 80 percent of Americans support voter ID laws, according to a 2016 Gallup poll.)
Democrats and voting rights advocates, meanwhile, point to research that shows cases of voter impersonation—the crime these laws are designed to prevent—are so rare as to be practically non-existent. One study published by the Washington Post counted 31 credible cases of voter fraud out of more than a billion votes cast from 2000 to 2014.
Critics say the laws are blatant attempts to suppress votes from minority, poor and elderly voters, who are less likely to possess photo identification, and more likely to encounter barriers towards obtaining it, including time and access to transportation. A federal appeals court in North Carolina this summer struck down that state’s voter ID law on grounds that the provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Although voter ID would ultimately require approval from the New Mexico Legislature, the secretary of state’s office wields considerable power to write a narrative that could help or hurt public support for the policy. New Mexico’s last elected secretary of state, Republican Dianna Duran, made national headlines in 2011 when she suggested during a legislative hearing that 37 foreign nationals voted in the previous year’s general election. Her claim set off a protracted legal battle, the fallout from which Duran’s appointed successor, Brad Winter, is still grappling with today.
The American Civil Liberties Union requested to see documentation to prove her claim. When Duran’s office refused, the ACLU filed a request under the state’s public records law. Duran eventually turned over motor vehicle documents that did not show any evidence of voter fraud. (The issue of voter ID also took center stage during Duran’s 2014 run for re-election, when Toulouse Oliver narrowly lost her first bid for secretary of state.)
New Mexicans typically vote for their chief election official every four years, but scandal has ruptured the standard electoral timeline.
The first Republican to hold the seat since the stock market crash of 1929, Duran stepped down the same day she pleaded guilty to embezzlement and campaign finance violations last fall. Winter, a Republican appointee from Albuquerque, replaced her. He’ll officiate the Nov. 8 general election, which includes a special race to determine the successor to serve out the rest of Duran’s term through 2018.
Secretary of state is this year’s banner race. No other statewide candidates face challenges this cycle except for a Supreme Court justice in a partisan retention battle. Not governor, lieutenant governor nor attorney general.Voters won’t be picking candidates for either of New Mexico’s US Senate seats either. (All three seats for the US House are in contention, but none hotly.) For many New Mexicans, the candidates for secretary of state will appear inches below the names Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. As Lonna Atkeson, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico, put it to SFR, “There are no other interesting races on the ballot.”
High billing means heavy coffers. Secretary of state has been this cycle’s most expensive race. Combined, the two candidates have raised more than $700,000. Espinoza has brought in about $267,000, according to campaign finance reports filed Monday. Her most recent report shows significant cash from donors in the ranching and oil and gas industry, including Petroleum Yates Company. Toulouse Oliver leads her opponent with just over $470,000, 33 percent more than she raised at this point in 2014. Some of her biggest donations came from the League of Conservation Voters, Emily’s List and the NEA Fund for Public Education.
On a Thursday evening, Espinoza mingled with prominent New Mexico Republicans at a Rio Rancho country club. Supporters gnawed through chicken wings on a patio with stunning views of the Sandias.
The roster of attendees evoked a local party convention. Lieutenant Governor John Sanchez spoke. So did Carla Sonntag, the president of the New Mexico Business Coalition. Justice Judith Nakamura, the governor’s appointee to the state Supreme Court who’s trying to fend off a retention challenge from a Democrat, recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Candidates running for office, from seats on county commissions to the state senate, took turns introducing themselves at a podium back-dropped by a greenway (hole number nine) adorned with rows of miniature New Mexico state flags.
They gathered to support the guest of honor, Espinoza, a former schoolteacher and owner of a food business. Some offered words. Others gave cash. Ida Mitchell, a local opera singer decked in plastic Viking regalia, performed a political rendition of the Puccini aria, “O mio babbino caro.” (“Oh beloved Nora / you’ve many years of your career / of dealing with children.”)
“Elections matter and elections have consequences. We need to make sure we have someone sitting in that office up in Santa Fe that is going to protect the ballot box,” said Lieutenant Gov. Sanchez. “And I know she’s going to lead the charge.”
As the sun began to set, Espinoza took to the podium. She spoke at length (about 10 minutes of her 17-minute speech) about the single issue that has defined her campaign.
“What is of true value?” she said. “To have a system that is honest and fair for all New Mexicans. And what is, remember this, the ethical issue that my opponent is raising? The only ethical issue is voting fraud. They’re not addressing it and that is why we must pass voter ID.”
Espinoza mentioned a salacious 2012 scandal in the border town of Sunland Park that involved allegations of solicitation, bribery and extortion. One former city councilor pled guilty to three charges of voter fraud for registering ineligible voters to help boost a mayoral candidate’s chances. (It’s unlikely that a photo ID law would have prevented those cases, as the illegally registered voters submitted absentee ballots.) Espinoza also brought up the case of her colleague, Rep. Idalia Lechuga-Tena (D-Bernalillo), who admitted to voting in 2003 before she became an American citizen.
“You have heard me say it and I will say it again. I’m Hispanic and to tell me that I don’t have the ability to get an ID because I’m a minority or Hispanic?” Espinoza told the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, we should be upset because that is an insult to New Mexicans. It really is.”
Earlier in the campaign season, she went even further than she did at her fundraiser. Addressing supporters of presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally for his running mate Mike Pence, Espinoza suggested that Democrats have a “plan” to “drive or carry everyone they can find to the polls and have them vote regardless of eligibility.”
Trump has repeatedly claimed the election will be rigged in favor of Democrats, suggesting fraud will be rampant in states without voter ID policies. “We may have people vote 10 times,” he told the Washington Post.
She also highlighted her opponent’s support of policies that automatically register driver’s license holders to vote, which Espinoza claims would lead to 100,000 non-citizens eligible to participate in elections. (Toulouse Oliver disputes this claim, saying existing DMV checks would prevent that.)
Like Duran before her, Espinoza did not respond to phone calls or emails from SFR requesting an interview about her candidacy. When we attempted to confirm the time of the fundraiser that day, an organizer said it would likely be called off. Espinoza granted us 10 minutes to chat with her at the event before someone whisked her away to speak with donors. (She did not return a follow-up phone call.)
After Espinoza finished her Rio Rancho speech, SFR approached the candidate and asked her to comment on studies showing that voter fraud is rare and that some people have a harder time obtaining government-issued identification.
Espinoza disagreed with the suggestion. She offered a comparison to the application process for government-sponsored benefits programs. “How do they get their checks?” she said. “Those that live off government subsidies, they have to have identification as being citizens of this state, you know, of being an American citizen. To receive that check, they have to fill out documents. If they’re able to do that, and they have a bank account and they’re able to give that information. Why are we saying those things, they can do, and yet we cannot protect their vote? It doesn’t make sense.”
Contrary to that assertion, while New Mexico requires people to provide identification when applying for state benefits, Human Services Department accepts an array of documents that do not necessarily include a photo ID. In addition to a driver’s license, the state will accept birth certificates, school or church records, insurance cards, wage stubs or letters from community resources, among other forms of identification.
In August, Toulouse Oliver stepped in front of a crowd of donors at a fundraiser held at the Meow Wolf art exhibition in Santa Fe, where she was set to moderate a “Conversation on Voting Rights and Civic Engagement.”
Mayor Javier Gonzales, a former head of the state Democratic Party, lounged on a sofa to her left, along with Zackary Quintero, the president of Young Democrats for New Mexico, and Annie Weinberg, the electoral director of Democracy for America, a national organization that props up progressive candidates.
Other prominent area Democrats, including County Commissioner Liz Stefanics, who is running for state senate, and Marco Serna, a candidate running to be the head prosecutor for the First Judicial District, sat in the audience.
Toulouse Oliver introduced herself as county clerk from “your neighbor to the south,” and said that she has dedicated her nine-year tenure to “expanding access to the ballot box.”
She described her educational background, mentioning a master’s degree in political science from the University of New Mexico, which endowed her with “a little bit” of knowledge about the “founding of our amazing democracy.” When America declared independence from Britain, she noted, its citizens suddenly held tremendous power to govern their new nation.
“Of course there were a lot of debates about exactly which people should be vested with that power,” Toulouse Oliver said. “And those debates that happened at our founding have continued throughout the course of our nation’s history.”
She traced the evolution of American voting rights: In the beginning, only white, male landowners could participate in elections. After the Civil War, African American men were enfranchised. And another 50 years later, women gained the right to vote. But rights don’t equal access, Toulouse Oliver noted. States still found ways to block certain populations from elections, via poll taxes, literacy tests and other mechanisms, until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ostensibly put those practices to an end.
“Where we are today, things look different. And they taste different. And they smell different,” Toulouse Oliver said, adding that efforts to suppress the vote these days take on subtler forms, like rolling back early voting days and imposing photo ID requirements.
SFR caught back up with Toulouse Oliver a week after the Meow Wolf event. She had just wrapped up a campaign tour in the southwest part of the state. We headed to the Bernalillo County Bureau of Elections’ expansive warehouse, not far from Albuquerque’s downtown plaza, where dozens of volunteers were undergoing the requisite training to register people to vote.
"We have great voter laws in the state."
“We have great voter laws in the state,” she told SFR, mentioning convenience centers and the absence of voter ID restrictions. “Even though we’ve had photo ID bills drop before the Legislature and other potentially restrictive legislation, the Legislature has rejected that kind of legislation over and over again.”
Toulouse Oliver had been thinking about a story published over Labor Day weekend by The Santa Fe New Mexican that raised questions about the level of disclosure in both candidates’ campaign finance reports. She had come out hard a few weeks earlier to point out dramatic gaps in the system maintained by the secretary of state to date.
The journalist, Andrew Oxford, noted that certain donors, including lobbyists, company heads and government officials, hid behind vague occupation titles, like “consultant” or “business person.” Hundreds more contributors didn’t list any occupation at all. (Only donors who give more than $150 are required to.)
Sitting in an empty conference room, Toulouse Oliver acknowledged the ambiguity in some of her reports and said she’ll instruct her staff to follow up with donors that give imprecise information in the future. (She says Monday’s deadline was too late, but will make sure to add that information for the three remaining reporting deadlines.)
Toulouse Oliver also suggested a potential solution to avoid this problem in the future: Add another field to campaign reporting forms that would require contributors to not only list their occupation, but the “nature” of their work as well.
That’s just one of many changes a secretary of state could implement to improve transparency in the political process, she says, especially in the digital storage of the information. SFR pulled up the state elections website on a laptop and asked her to show us around.
She typed “Barrett Toan,” the name of a Santa Fe-based former health care executive, into the site’s contributor database. Half a dozen listings popped up, with donations upwards of $100,000.
Most listed just Toan’s name. Others listed him and his wife, Paula O’Brien. Toulouse Oliver tapped in O’Brien’s name, which turned up another three listings, and then pointed to the bottom of the screen.
“Maybe down here, there should be a listing for ‘related records.’ For people that have the same employer, people that have the same address,” Toulouse Oliver said.
Next, Toulouse Oliver typed her own name into the site, and noticed a glaring omission.
“Where are my 2008 reports?” she asked, referring to donations she received when running for county clerk. “There are a lot of archives missing.”
In this bitter race, both candidates have lobbed predictable attacks over their opponent’s background in public service.
Tolouse Oliver paints Espinoza as an unprincipled opportunist without relevant experience. “It’s almost like she just woke up one morning and thought, Oh! I’ll run for secretary of state,” Toulouse Oliver said. She notes that in nearly 10 years of legislating, Espinoza never once sponsored a bill related to the election process, until the day she made her candidacy official, when her name appeared atop photo ID legislation.
What Espinoza became known for championing in the statehouse, in addition to her love of large hats, however, are conservative causes including a “religious liberty” bill that would allow business owners to discriminate against LGBT people.
Espinoza, for her part, maintains that her legislative history is irrelevant to the office she seeks. “This is an administrative position, and all these newspapers and all these other reporters, they want to go back and—do they not get it?” she said at the Rio Rancho fundraiser. “I’m not running for state representative! I don’t know what their problem is.”
The Republican has attacked Toulouse Oliver for an instance in 2012, when 152 absentee ballots in Bernalillo County did not initially get counted. (They were discovered after the election and sent to the secretary of state’s office before results were certified.)
Espinoza has also hit Toulouse Oliver for a donation made between political action committees (PACs) when the Democrat ran against Duran in 2014. PACS are allowed to support, but are forbidden from directly coordinating with, candidates. An ethics complaint filed earlier this year pointed to a $10,000 donation from one PAC, Verde Voters, to another, SOS for Democracy, that supported Toulouse Oliver. That donation exceeds the limit and should have been reported, Espinoza says. (Toulouse Oliver’s campaign has called the complaint baseless on grounds that it did not directly coordinate with the PAC.)
No matter who wins in November, both candidates will be ending long tenures in their respective offices. Although Espinoza spent the majority of her speech in Rio Rancho on the topic of voter ID, she concluded with a more blatant appeal toward her fellow Republicans, invoking the virtue of sacrifice. Having won her state representative seat with 78 percent of the vote, then rising to chair of the House Education Committee, why would Espinoza give up all she has earned to run for an “administrative” position?
"I stepped out because I know how important this office is."
Espinoza said numerous prominent Republicans, including US Rep. Steve Pearce, New Mexico’s only GOP member in Congress, encouraged her to run for Secretary of State. “Everyone said, ‘Nora, we need you to run.’ I could sit there and stay as state representative, and I love being state representative. … But right now, I realized how important it was and I stepped out because I know how important this office is.”
Back at the elections warehouse, Toulouse Oliver wandered between rows of nondescript black boxes that idle for most of their existence, coming out once or twice a year to play a starring role in the democratic process.
“I’m getting nostalgic and I’m getting sad,” says Toulouse Oliver, who has overseen at least 10 elections since beginning her job in 2007. This November’s will be her last hurrah in Bernalillo County. “I’ve spent a lot of hours in this place.”
After forums planned by the League of Women voters did not take place because Espinoza refused to participate, both candidates are scheduled to debate at 10 am on Oct. 16 at Congregation Albert (3800 Louisiana Blvd. NE, Albuquerque).
Note: Thanks to New Mexico Political Report, which shared a recording of Espinoza at the Pence rally.