A bill to consolidate most local elections into one cleared a big hurdle on Friday when the Senate voted 28-10 to approve it.
The House has approved an early version of the bill, but a Senate committee amended the legislation to allow cities to opt out of consolidated elections. That means the House must give final approval to the Senate amendments before the bill can go to Gov. Susana Martinez for consideration.
“This is a good deal for the voters,” Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque and a sponsor of the bill, said during Friday’s debate. “This is something that has been discussed for many years. It was a long time coming, and it’s time that we do this.”
The Senate debate on House Bill 174, which is also sponsored by Rep. James Smith, R-Sandia Park, centered largely on opposition from the state’s 89 school districts to consolidating their elections with those for other local government entities.
Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, complained that the legislation was being forced on school districts.
“I think we’re being a little heavy-handed with this bill,” said Sapien, who voted against the legislation.
The Las Cruces Public Schools was among the government entities opposing the bill. Officials there said they worried they’d have a more difficult time convincing voters to approve general obligation bonds and tax mill levies that help fund construction projects if they had to compete with other government agencies on the same ballot. New Mexico State University opposed the legislation for a similar reason — the university worried that Doña Ana Community College would face increased advertising costs to compete with other agencies’ bonds on the same ballot.
Ivey-Soto wasn’t sympathetic to such opposition when Sapien brought it up.
“There are many institutions in this state that would prefer that nobody knows they’re having an election,” Ivey-Soto said. “This bill is about the voter.”
Proponents say consolidating elections would increase voter turnout by making it easier for people to understand when and where they can vote and bring more attention to elections by having more candidates and issues on one ballot.
“This is a really important bill,” said Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, who voted for it. “…I like that we’re not going to have five different elections in the same year. That causes confusion; it causes the voters to get tired. … I think it will help with turnout.”
The bill would consolidate elections for school districts, special hospital districts, community college districts, technical and vocational institute districts, learning center districts, arroyo flood control districts, special zoning districts, soil and water conservation districts, and water and sanitation districts beginning in 2019. Cities would be included as well unless their governing bodies approve an ordinance opting out. In 2023 the bill would also add conservancy district elections.
The bill would not consolidate elections for mutual domestics or homeowner associations.
If the bill becomes law, one November you’d vote in partisan races like county commission, state Legislature and U.S. Congress, and the next you’d vote in nonpartisan races the legislation would consolidate.
Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima was an early opponent of the bill but told NMPolitics.net on Friday that he supports it now that cities can opt-out.
During Senate debate, Sapien asked Ivey-Soto why the legislation allows cities to opt out of consolidation but not school districts. Ivey-Soto pointed to “the constitutional language that exists with regard to the sovereignty of municipalities,” and said no such provision exists in the N.M. Constitution for other local governments.
“At some point if you just opt everybody out you’ve got an election where nobody participates,” Ivey-Soto said.
The legislation would also bring local government agencies under governance of the state’s elections code. Cities that opt-out would be allowed to have their own rules governing elections — and those who have photo identification laws for voting, like Albuquerque and Rio Rancho, could keep them. That provision appeared to be important to gaining Republican support for the bill in the Senate.
Earlier Friday, the Senate approved another election-reform bill on a vote of 35-5. House Bill 98, sponsored by Rep. Tomás Salazar, D-Las Vegas, and Ivey-Soto, aims to increase absentee voting access for people who are visually impaired and allow online absentee ballot applications. That bill also awaits House concurrence before it can go to the governor.