Ballot Boss

Two candidates from the right are challenging the Democratic incumbent to oversee elections and business registration in New Mexico

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, faces not one but two opponents in the general election this November.

Both of them, Republican Gavin Clarkson and Libertarian Ginger Grider, were parties to a legal challenge to Toulouse Oliver's late-hour attempt to reinstate straight-party voting on ballots. The unpopular plan, opposed even by some Democrats, was struck down by the state Supreme Court last month.

The defeat for Toulouse Oliver has colored the race in its home stretch. And it stands as a kind of proxy for the claims her opponents have lobbed at Toulouse Oliver: Time and again, she has overstepped the authority granted to her offie.

Toulouse Oliver won the job in a special election two years ago after her Republican predecessor resigned and later served time on corruption charges. She insists that her support for straight-party voting was motivated by a desire to improve voter participation and not to swing the vote for Democrats, as critics claim. According to an Albuquerque Journal poll from Sept. 21, Toulouse Oliver led her two opponents at 46 percent, compared to Clarkson's 32 percent and Grider's 6. Secretaries of state are elected to four-year terms.

"I was disappointed, because unfortunately the court left a really big question unanswered, [which is:] Under what authority did every secretary of state up until [former Secretary of State Dianna Duran] implement straight-party voting from 1917 all the way to 2010?" she tells SFR.

The former Bernalillo County clerk believes New Mexico is "at the forefront of a lot of innovation for opening up the vote," including online voter registration and the ability to opt-in while obtaining an ID at the Motor Vehicle Division. She wants to take a page from other states and implement vote-at-home procedures, wherein registered voters receive their ballots in the mail, and supports same-day voter registration.

She also wants New Mexico to join a majority of states with open primaries, so that people can vote in primary elections without registering with a particular party.

"The ability for folks to participate and have their voices heard [in open primaries] outweighs any unfounded fear" of disingenuous voting, Toulouse Oliver says.

Toulouse Oliver's Republican challenger, Clarkson, frames his own position on open primaries in a way that highlights his campaign's central theme: The secretary of state's perceived partisanship in the discharging of her duties.

A professor and self-described "military brat" whose grandfather had roots in Las Cruces, Clarkson is currently suing his former employer, New Mexico State University, which terminated him for reasons he says are culturally and racially discriminatory. (He is a conservative Christian and a member of the Choctaw Nation.)

"The role of the secretary of state is to implement the law as passed by the Legislature," Clarkson said in a televised debate last month. "It doesn't matter what my personal position is on open primaries. If the Legislature asks me to come up with a position on open primaries, with my staff I'll do the analysis and I'll make arguments for it and against it."

But Clarkson, who was tapped by the state GOP to run after he lost the primary race for outgoing Rep. Steve Pearce's congressional seat, has himself adopted a partisan political style. He's tagged Fox News on Twitter to comment on Sen. Elizabeth Warren's claims of Native American heritage and associated, without evidence, Toulouse Oliver and "Antifa" for her support of private donor disclosure requirements, among other aggressively Trumpish tweets.

A sore spot for Clarkson is reporting from ProPublica that connected him to a dubious loan his company made to an Indian tribe in 2009 for the purchase of a brokerage firm that eventually went bankrupt. Clarkson was tapped by the Trump administration last June to oversee a division of the Bureau of Indian Affairs that is still trying to avoid a $20 million payout as a result of the smelly deal Clarkson engineered.

ProPublica's story ran last year, on Nov. 7. A week later, the news organization reported that Clarkson had resigned in disgrace from his position, citing an unnamed department official. The Washington Post also reported Clarkson's resignation that day.

Clarkson says he resigned to run for Congress. He forwarded to SFR a resignation letter addressed to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke dated Dec. 29.

"#FakeNews says I resigned from the Trump administration Nov. 13th. FALSE! I didn't leave until Dec. 29th, and that was to run for Congress. I'll be setting the record straight," Clarkson tweeted about the matter on Jan. 8.

A follow-up report from the Inspector General published in February found that Clarkson had violated other ethical guidelines during his short stint on the job, including attempted nepotism. He called the report "false allegations" by "Deep State bureaucrats and Obama holdovers."

He believes that New Mexico under Toulouse Oliver has allowed large numbers of deceased people and non-citizens on the voter rolls. Toulouse Oliver denies these claims.

Ginger Grider of Portales got on the ballot with the Libertarian party a little over a month ago, after its first candidate dropped out. A medical cannabis advocate and stay-at-home mother who didn't attend a Santa Fe League of Women Voters forum this month, Grider says she came to the party after the last presidential election when she phone-banked for Gary Johnson, the party's Senate candidate running to take Democrat Martin Heinrich's seat.

As secretary of state, Grider says she would contact all county clerks to assess election procedures. She would also work with the new governor's administration to find places in the state's budget where cuts could be made—not typically a role played by the secretary of state.

Similar to Clarkson, Grider was moved to challenge Toulouse Oliver for her seat after the latter's unsuccessful push for straight-party voting. Another legal complainant against the initiative alongside Grider and Clarkson, the Elect Liberty PAC, is a fundraising group supporting Johnson's Senate campaign.

The role of the secretary of state "is an administrative position and in no shape, form, or fashion should the office ever be used for partisanship or trading favors," Girder says.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.