Editor’s note: This is one of two profiles of the candidates for secretary of state in the Nov. 8 general election. NMPolitics.net will profile Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver later this week.
Nora Espinoza doesn’t think the secretary of state should work to increase voter turnout, which she calls “a partisan activity.”
“It compromises the office,” she said. “If you register 500 voters in Santa Fe, then others are going to ask why not register 500 voters in Roswell? It becomes a matter of neutrality and even-handedness.”
Espinoza, a Republican who currently represents the Roswell-area District 59 in the N.M. House of Representatives, is running for the open secretary of state seat this year. She faces Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver, currently Bernalillo County’s clerk.
Secretary of state, whose duties include being New Mexico’s top elections administrator, doesn’t normally appear on the ballot on the same year as a presidential election. The 2015 resignation of Republican Dianna Duran, who was convicted of using campaign funds for personal use, led to the appointment of Brad Winter to the job, but only until the next election, which is this Nov. 8. Winter agreed not to seek election, so the race is wide open.
The winner will hold the seat for two years. Elections for secretary of state will return to their normal four-year cycle in 2018.
Espinoza, who chairs the House Education Committee, owns and operates two businesses, and has served as a school administrator, talked a lot in an email interview with NMPolitics.net about keeping the office politics-free if she’s elected.
“I have a lot of administrative experience,” Espinoza said. “The (SOS) office is an administrative one, free from partisan politics, and should be run by an administrator with the objective of administering and supervising the electoral process in New Mexico.”
She said her work “has given me the kind of experience required for supervising the staff and operations of an administrative office, one geared to ensuring that procedures and policies are carried out in accordance with the law and established rules. Only in that way can elections be even-handedly and fairly conducted for all participants.”
Many politicians campaign on the issue of increasing voter turnout. Not Espinoza.
“It is not the role of neutral elections supervisors (such as the SOS),” Espinoza said. “The role of elections administrators is to conduct the election and count the votes.”
Getting more voters to the polls is a frequent topic in the United States. Turnout was actually up in this year’s June primaries compared to presidential primaries in New Mexico since 1996, according to the Albuquerque Journal. New Mexico’s turnout was also six points higher than the national average in this year’s primaries, according to the Pew Research Center.
But this year’s primaries buck recent trends. Turnout had been declining in Las Cruces city elections since at least 2003, until it was flat last year. Also last year, Albuquerque had its lowest turnout for a city election in decades. Across the United States, 2014’s midterm congressional elections saw the lowest turnout in 72 years. And the United States trails almost all other developed nations in voter turnout.
Though she won’t work to convince people of the importance of showing up to the polls, Espinoza said she would work to make voting easier for New Mexicans who want to vote. One way she plans to do that is by making online registration easier and more “user-friendly.”
As secretary of state, Espinoza said her main focus would be on implementing laws that prohibit people from voting without identification. It’s a controversial issue Democrats in the Legislature have shot down repeatedly in the past. Many criticize voter ID as a policy that actually makes it more difficult for some people to vote.
Such protection is necessary, Espinoza said.
“Voting is among the most sacred of our democratic institutions because representative government rests on the decisions of voters,” she said. “If electoral procedures are not safeguarded, then the whole foundation of government can be called into question and its legitimacy can be doubted by voters. That is unhealthy.”
The Democratic Party requires ID to participate in its national conventions, Espinoza pointed out.
“It is hypocrisy at its highest to require ID protection for your own party gatherings, then turn around and tell New Mexicans that their votes and their identities don’t need to be safeguarded,” she said.
In 2011, Rhode Island, which Espinoza called “the most Democrat state in the nation,” passed a voter ID law after a state representative and her daughter weren’t able to vote because they “had already voted,” Espinoza said.
“It is an unforgivable wrong in our state for someone to show up at a polling place and be told he or she has already voted,” she said.
A 2010 county commission race in Chaves County was won by one vote. “If one person voted unlawfully, regardless of the cause or circumstance, then that may have changed the outcome,” Espinoza said. If elected secretary of state, Espinoza would follow in the footsteps of Duran, who also sought to enact a voter ID law. Duran, as secretary of state, set out to prove voter fraud was pervasive. She failed.
“The Secretary of State’s Office has so far been able to match 117 voter registrations to names and dates of birth in the MVD Foreign National database,” Duran’s administration wrote in a 2011 press release. “The records make it clear that at least 37 of those identified have voted in New Mexico elections.”
Not so fast. The American Civil Liberties Union filed an Inspection of Public Records Act request with the SOS, requesting to see documentation of the 37 illegal voters. The led to a lawsuit and, in the end, Duran was unable to produce records to prove fraudulent voting.
That isn’t to say voter fraud does not exist. For example, Horacio Favela, a former municipal judge in Sunland Park, was sentenced in 2009 to 18 months of probation for fraudulently voting and fraudulently registering as a candidate for judge.
Implementing voter ID laws will restore voter confidence in both the SOS Office and in the election process, Espinoza said. And that, she said, could actually increase voter turnout.
“Securing voters’ identification and giving them the assurance their votes will not be stolen enhances the belief that elections are honest,” she said. “People who believe the system is fair and honest are more likely, not less, to participate in elections. Incidents of vote-stealing, aided by the lack of requirement for ID, diminishes that confidence.”
Campaign finance reform
Reforming the state’s campaign finance reporting system and other ethics laws has been a hot topic ever since Duran was charged with illegally using campaign funds to keep her personal bank account in the black while gambling at New Mexico casinos. Espinoza supports reform to improve transparency and clarify requirements.
“Every candidate and committee must not only know the definitions and procedures, but must clearly know how to report expenditures and contributions — directions that are currently either not defined properly in state law, or which are currently not required in statute at all because the Campaign Reporting Act is out-of-date and obsolete,” she said.
To make reporting easier, Espinoza said she supports updating the Campaign Finance Information System (CFIS) – the state’s online reporting database.
“CFIS will have to be able to take account of independent expenditures (which it cannot do now) and do a better job of tracking contributions and expenditures by the same entity and by multiple entities,” she said. “It has to be user friendly, providing maximum transparency as quickly as the data can be gathered. It has to be easily accessible by candidates, committees, the public and the media. I introduced a bill during the most recent legislative session that would clarify the proper use and the prohibited uses of campaign funds.”
The bill died in the Senate “because many legislators, as well as some lobbying groups and special interest groups, tend to want vagueness and ambiguity,” Espinoza asserted.
Espinoza has been criticized for introducing her first bills related to election reform during the session earlier this year – as she was launching her campaign for secretary of state – without introducing election reform bills during her other nine years in the Legislature.
Espinoza said, while she had not introduced any bills related to elections reform in the past, she had advocated for other legislators’ election bills.
“It is costly and inefficient for legislators to create duplicate bills when others are already known to be sponsoring the bill,” she said.
Further, Espinoza said she sponsored a bill this past session dealing with the proper use of campaign funds because that issue “had come to a head” in October 2015 with revelations about Duran’s crimes and discrepancies in some lawmakers’ reports.
“Matters of that particular nature had not come up before, and certainly no one had attempted to address them through legislation — apparently because the issues were new to the discussion, and no one wanted to touch them,” she said. “So I decided to act.”
No ethics commission
While Espinoza said she supports ethics reform, she does not support a proposal to create a state ethics commission that would set standards for ethical conduct in government and police violations. Such a commission’s membership “would be beholden to the politicians who name them and who would not be answerable to the voters,” Espinoza said.
“This is a feel-good natural approach for many politicians — slap a title on a bill so that there can be the perception that the bill is providing a solution,” she said.
Ethics commission bills have died in the Legislature several times in recent years. Espinoza views the proposed commission as another “state bureaucracy” that “would be empowered to do the same things the elected Legislature is supposed to do — set the procedures and standards of conduct for a wide range of campaign finance issues and campaign practices.”