Throughout his eight years as a Republican state senator, Steve Komadina repeatedly tried to rid the state’s election system of a ballot option that he says drives him crazy.
Straight-party ticket voting, a common practice in New Mexico, gives voters the option of selecting all of a political party’s various candidates by casting one simple vote on the ballot.
But in a state like New Mexico, where Democrats have controlled the state Legislature for decades, Komadina’s proposals weren’t welcomed with open arms. He never got a committee hearing.
“Elections are not about political parties. Elections are about candidates,” Komadina, who partly blames straight-party voting for his 2008 loss to state Sen. John Sapien, D-Sandoval, says. “It’s just one more way the political parties control things.”
But, ever since Dianna Duran became New Mexico’s first Republican Secretary of State in 80 years, long-shot efforts like Komadina’s are now a reality. In June, Duran announced that she was removing the straight-party option from the ballot because the law didn’t require it to be an option.
The move takes away a popular voting method used by a significant portion of the state’s electorate. During the last general statewide election in 2010, 41 percent of New Mexico voters chose a straight-party option, with 23 percent voting for the Democratic Party and 18 percent voting for the Republican Party.
Duran’s move can be traced back to 2001, when the Legislature altered the state’s election laws to allow for electronic voting. A small portion of the repealed law also contained language that provided for straight-party voting. Republicans have since argued that Democrats’ desire to return to the old law is merely political.
“Of course the Democrats do not want registered voters thinking about the merits of their Democrat candidates,” state GOP Chairman Monty Newman writes SFR in a statement. “Bills by partisan Democrats to reinstate the antiquated party-boss tactic of straight party voting went nowhere in the legislature last year.”
Newman is referring to the 2012 legislative session, when state Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Valencia, introduced a bill to require that ballots offer a straight-party option. It failed to make it to Gov. Susana Martinez’ desk.
Yet David Thomson, a lawyer representing the Democratic Party of New Mexico and two voters in a lawsuit against Duran, argues that another provision in the state election code allows straight-party voting. He cites a section stating that party chairs need to work with the secretary of state to place a party emblem on the ballot that “shall therefore be used to designate the ticket of that political party on all ballots.”
Thomson also takes issue with how Duran laid out the ballot this year. Previously, the party insignia went next to the straight-party options. This year, it’s placed next to the presidential candidates. Thomson, along with other straight-party advocates, says he fears that the new ballot, coupled with a lack of education about the changes, will confuse voters.
Pat Davis, executive director of the liberal group ProgressNow New Mexico, says the changes “have the impact of deterring voters.”
“We’re really concerned voters are being confused, and anytime voters are confused there’s a chance they might not vote,” Davis tells SFR. “Anything that makes it harder for people to vote, we should always look at with a skeptical eye.”
Liberal advocates of straight-party voting argue that Duran’s move is simply the latest in a long line of attempts to stifle the vote.
Duran came under scrutiny last year for handing over 64,000 voting cards to state authorities to investigate for voting fraud. Just 19 came back with signs of potential fraud. She also faced criticism this past summer for sending out 178,000 confusing mailings warning already-registered voters that their registration would become inactive by 2015 if they didn’t send the card back to her office and didn’t vote in the 2014 general election. (She later explained that the order came from the US Department of Justice, and that the previous two secretaries of state failed to comply with it.)
On the surface, straight-party voting seems like a partisan issue. In reality, however, it’s much less clear-cut. Republicans in Oklahoma and North Carolina were long opposed to straight-party voting before they took over the legislature in both states. Afterward, though, both failed to pass laws that would ban the practice.
“When the majority party gets control, they decide to keep it because it helps them,” Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, tells SFR.
Almost anyone involved in third-party politics—including Winger, who’s active with the Libertarian Party—has something bad to say about straight-party voting.
“It’s anti-democratic,” TR Knoblock, state secretary for the New Mexico Green Party, tells SFR. “People don’t think. People pull that lever.”
And it’s cost elections for otherwise high-profile minority party candidates. Knoblock blames the straight-party option for the losses of Green Party Public Regulation Commission candidates David Bacon and Rick Lass to Democrats Carol Sloan and Jerome Block. Both Sloan and Block were eventually forced out of the PRC after engaging in criminal activity.
Yet Thomson points out that simply having straight-party voting available doesn’t mean voters are barred from voting for individual races if they want to.
“You can still work down the ballot. It’s the option of doing one or another,” Thomson says. (Even if a voter chooses the straight-party option, he or she can still cast a different vote in individual races.)
Given the bad timing of Thomson’s case—he says he couldn’t file it until he saw the general election ballot—he admits that a decision won’t come until after the Nov. 6 election.
As of Oct. 20, more than 82,000 New Mexicans had already voted through early voting and absentee ballots, according to Secretary of State spokesman Ken Ortiz. He adds that the cost of putting straight-party voting back on the ballot this close to election day would cost taxpayers at least $1 million.
But Knoblock argues that eliminating straight-party voting may force voters to think more critically before voting for candidates like Sloan and Block.
“If it makes 2 percent of the population stop and think before they vote, that’s not a bad thing,” Knoblock says.
Things seem to be going his way. Straight-party voting is disappearing as an option; just over a dozen states currently allow it. Komadina says the fact that close to half of New Mexico voters used the straight-party option in 2010 reflects the sorry state of local electoral politics.
“They won’t even take five minutes to check down the ballot to see who they’re voting for,” Komadina says of straight-party voters. “That’s sad.”