Albuquerque – In making a case for her plan to resurrect the straight party voting option in New Mexico, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver says it makes it much easier for voters of all stripes to cast a ballot. (Straight party voting allows voters to check a single box to vote for a major party's entire slate of candidates.)
"The reality of straight party voting," Toulouse Oliver said in a guest column in the Journal last week, "is that more voters will be able to participate in the voting process, and the process itself will be quicker and easier."
OK. But if Toulouse Oliver's primary goal is simply to make voting easier, and by easier she means faster, then why not just allow voters to sign a proxy handing their ballots over to the political party of their choice to vote as party officials see fit? Sure, that's a little over the top, but it's effectively what the straight party option does. So if speed is the name of the game, then that's the way to go in Toulouse Oliver's world.
But for anyone who actually cares about having an informed electorate, straight party voting is a terrible idea. Voting in this country is a sacred right and a responsibility, and it's not too much to ask voters to consider each race on the ballot. They can still vote for every Democrat or every Republican if they so choose, but they should consider each race. Individual candidates and their stances on issues matter.
It's disappointing Toulouse Oliver is trying to take New Mexico backward on this issue. The Legislature abolished straight ticket voting in 2001, the state finally stopped using it in 2012 under then-Secretary of State Dianna Duran, the first Republican in the office in decades, and the Legislature has since refused to reinstate it. Only nine states still use it – and Texas is dropping it effective in 2020.
So besides being a bad idea, there's a good argument the secretary of state doesn't have the legal authority to unilaterally revive straight party voting.
Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, contends through a spokesman that there's nothing in state statute that would prohibit her from restoring straight party voting. The Republican Party has indicated it might pursue a court challenge if it's reinstituted.
Toulouse Oliver has said she'd like to bring it back, possibly as soon as November, although her office intends to hold public hearings before moving forward.
Critics of her plan also argue straight party voting gives an unfair advantage to major party candidates, especially Democrats, over independent candidates or those affiliated with minor parties. (Roughly 46 percent of the state's registered voters are Democrats, while about 29 percent are Republicans. The rest are Libertarians, voters affiliated with minor political parties or independents.) Straight party voting is also likely to benefit down-ballot candidates who ride the party coattails but hurt nonpartisan down-ballot races where voters don't bother to weigh in, such as judicial retention, bond questions, constitutional amendments and the like.
Bob Perls, a registered independent, former state representative and founder of New Mexico Open Primaries, argues, "Straight ticket voting is not about helping the elderly or handicapped, it is about helping the major parties and mostly in NM the Democratic Party."
"Six states have eliminated this practice in the last decade," he says. "This choice is going backwards."
Toulouse Oliver counters that anyone marking the straight party voting option would still be able to vote for a candidate belonging to a different party and have that vote count.
The bottom line here is that straight party voting primarily serves party bosses, not voters. In a Facebook-scandal world we need an informed electorate now more than ever, and reinstituting straight party voting takes us in the opposite direction.
If Toulouse Oliver is really all about making voting easier, she should shelve this plan to take New Mexico back to the bad old days of pledging allegiance to a political party and champion open primaries instead. New Mexico is one of only nine states that fully disenfranchise independent voters – this year 265,355, or 22 percent, of registered voters will not be allowed to cast a ballot in the June 5 primary for everything from governor to county sheriff.
A system that makes voting possible for more than a quarter of a million people is worth championing. A system that just makes voting easier for the benefit of a major party is not.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.