New Mexico Supreme Court to Hear Oral Arguments in Voting Rights Case Wednesday September 14

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  • Viki Harrison
Common Cause Amicus Brief Urges Court to Put Constitutional Amendments Passed by Voters on the Books

The New Mexico Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Santa Fe Wednesday at 9 a.m. on whether the New Mexico Compilation Commission erred in not ordering that several constitutional amendments passed by a majority of voters in 2008, 2010 and 2014 be made a part of state law.

The League of Women Voters of New Mexico, the lead plaintiff, and a number of groups, which filed Amicus Curia briefs, believe that it did – and that the error will diminish voting rights in the state. Common Cause New Mexico, the NM Association of Counties, the Center for Disability Rights, and the Drug Policy Alliance were among those filing “Friend of the Court” statements.

The New Mexico Compilation Commission is a state agency which places newly passed legislation and amendments in the proper place in the printed and on-line version of New Mexico statues.

“Common Cause has always supported measures to expand voter turnout and remove restrictions that prevent minorities from voting.  It’s in our organization’s DNA,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico. Harrison said that Common Cause – as well as the voters – had twice backed a constitutional amendment to consolidate school board and non-partisan elections in order to boost exceptionally low turnout in the off-season education elections.  Common Cause also backed a measure to remove the terms “idiots” and “insane” from a list of people prohibited to vote by the constitution and replace it with the tighter definition “mentally incapacitated,” she said.

The underlying issue in this week’s case revolves around whether the two measures needed to pass by a simple majority or by 75% of all votes cast.  In order to protect rights, certain sections of the NM constitution were constructed to be almost “unamendable,” requiring a super majority for a change.

Common Cause, in its Amicus brief, said that a simple majority was sufficient in both cases since voting rights were being expanded, not restricted.

“Low turnout elections are a problem for democracy,” said Harrison, “and elections which are not held at the same time as either the general election or a municipal election have really poor turnout, which can tend to skew things in one direction or another.”  Statistics in the Common Cause brief pointed to off-cycle election turnout in California elections that were 35% lower than the average during the past decade.

According to the Common Cause brief, the situation in New Mexico is worse:

In the last decade, the highest voter turnout for an Albuquerque school election was in 2005 with 10% turn- out. Peak turnout has gone down steadily since that time to 6%.  Non-partisan municipal elections in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe had markedly higher turnout than school board elections each year:

  • In Albuquerque in 2005, when 10% of voters turned out for the school election, 31% turned out for the municipal election.
  • In 2007, 11% turned out for the municipal election, compared to 6% for the school election.
  • In 2009, 26% turned out for the municipal election, compared to 2% for the school election.
  • In 2011, 12% turned out for the municipal election, compared to 2% for the school election.
  • In 2013, 20% turned out for the municipal election, compared to 3.59% for the school election.
  • In 2015, 8.24% turned out for the municipal election, compared to 2.52% for the school election.

Las Cruces and Santa Fe have similar disparities, according to the brief.

The brief concludes that, “If low turnout for school elections is a problem, concurrent elections are a big step in the right direction. The 2008/2014 amendments provide a practical, effective solution to the problem of low voter participation in school elections. This simple change is unlikely to banish political apathy, but it will significantly increase the likelihood that citizens will make their voices heard on school issues.”

It also states that updating constitutional language for people with disabilities will protect existing voting rights and increase turnout.

The complete Amicus Brief is available here.  For more information contact Viki Harrison at 505-205-3750.