At a time when when voter turnout is declining nationwide, Tuesday’s municipal election in Las Cruces was noteworthy because turnout didn’t drop.
A confluence of factors appear to have contributed. They include some engaging candidates, a more active conservative movement to get people to the polls than in recent city elections, and well-funded negative attacks by an out-of-town super PAC that brought attention to the election.
Approximately 19 percent of voters turned out Tuesday. That isn’t necessarily a total that should make Las Crucens proud. In fact, Las Crucen Jerry Glen Wagoner called it “pathetic.”
But the fact that Las Crucens held the line is noteworthy. Turnout had been declining in city elections since at least 2003. Last month Albuquerque had its lowest turnout for a city election in decades. And 2014’s midterm congressional elections saw the lowest turnout in 72 years.
In the City of the Crosses, some said the assault by GOAL WestPAC on Mayor Ken Miyagishima and council candidates Kasandra Gandara and Jack Eakman — who all ended up winning — may have backfired by bringing attention to the election and energizing those candidates’ supporters.
“I think the last-minute slew of deeply negative campaigning — and an influx of outside special-interest money — lit a fire under people,” Zak Hansen of Las Cruces wrote on Facebook.
The City Clerk’s Office won’t have a final voter tally until Thursday’s canvass of election results. But the 10,224 people who voted in the mayor’s race make up 18.62 percent of Las Crucens who were eligible to cast ballots.
The final turnout number will probably be higher. Some Las Crucens likely voted for a council and/or municipal judge candidate but not a candidate for mayor.
The last time the mayor’s office was up for grabs in Las Cruces, in 2011, roughly the same percentage of eligible voters, 18.86 percent, showed up. In addition to the political factors that affected Tuesday’s turnout, there was one significant structural change: The city is now using consolidated voting centers instead of the conventional polling places.
That means there were fewer voting sites citywide on Tuesday, but people could vote at any of 15 locations instead of being tied to one. The change was intended to make voting more convenient.
Energy and excitement
The fact that Las Crucens could cast ballots at any voting center meant council candidates who wanted supporters holding signs in front of the polls needed more volunteers. In past elections, council candidates had to worry only about the handful of polling places in their district.
Richard Hall was up to the task. The City Council District 4 candidate’s volunteers were the most visible on Election Day, wearing red shirts and holding signs in front of many voting centers.
Hall lost to Eakman by 11 votes. But Hall’s campaign, after getting off to a slow start, built momentum quickly, and he made the race competitive.
“I believe we energized some people, though maybe not enough, on the conservative side,” Hall said Wednesday. “I really went through as many neighborhoods as I could.”
“You could always look back and say, gosh, two more blocks, I might have had 11 votes,” Hall said. “But I’m really happy with the people.”
Gandara was another candidate who appeared to energize voters. She defeated her well-known opponent Eli Guzman, who owns a martial arts studio, by 18 votes to win the District 1 seat on the city council.
“We knew it was going to be a tough race and that it was going to go down to the wire,” said Gandara’s campaign manager, Angélica Rubio. “Our race brought a lot of excitement to the municipal elections — and that’s great and that’s what we wanted.”
“Voters on both sides, from Eli to Kasandra, participated,” she said. “And that’s a win for all of us.”
Hotly contested races
Candidates backed by self-identified progressives have dominated city politics since 2007, when Miyagishima was first elected mayor. Such candidates have also won most city council races during that time — including Gandara’s and Eakman’s contests on Tuesday.
But unlike many races in recent times, this year’s city council races were all hotly contested. The widest margin of victory in any council race was Gregory Z. Smith’s. The District 2 councilor won re-election with 54 percent of the vote.
Gandara and Eakman both won by less than 1 percent of the vote.
A political operative working to defeat both candidates, Jeffrey Isbell, predicted before the election that turnout would top 2011’s 18.86 percent. And though he didn’t promise victories for Guzman and Hall, he announced that there’s now a more active conservative counter to the progressive movement. He said that would drive up turnout in future local elections.
“That’s a great thing for the voters and ultimately our democracy, even if conservatives don’t always win,” Isbell said.
Mark Benson of Las Cruces, who identifies as progressive, called on others who share his beliefs to pay attention.
“I think it’s ridiculous that we could have shifted the balance of power to the other guys if only three dozen people on the other side got out of bed to vote,” Benson wrote on Facebook. “… If you don’t get involved in the next election, this won’t be a pretty picture for progressive voters.”
Negative attacks spark action
The negative attacks by GOAL West on the progressive-backed candidates undoubtedly had an impact. Mailers, robocalls and other paid media built awareness about the election. And it sparked some supporters of the assaulted candidates to act.
“I voted and was telling people to vote,” Barbara Alvarez wrote on Facebook. “Reason being, all that negative campaign stuff… I resented the you-know-what out of those shenanigans.”
This isn’t the first time out-of-town money has influenced city elections. The Albuquerque-based Conservation Voters New Mexico Educational Fund helped Miyagishima and other progressive-backed candidates take power in 2007. But Conservation Voters’ efforts didn’t include the negative attacks that characterized GOAL West’s work this year.
After GOAL West hit Miyagishima last week with a highly negative last-minute attack — the contents of which NMPolitics.net isn’t repeating — one of the mayor’s supporters, Anna Juarez, worked harder to get people to the polls. She even offered rides, she said.
“I hate it when someone drops a ‘dirty bombshell’ right before the election and basically denies their opponent the chance to respond,” Juarez wrote on Facebook.
Miyagishima ended up winning in a landslide.