If you listen to either candidate for New Mexico’s Secretary of State speak with her supporters, you might get the impression that the race for the statewide Chief Election Official is a referendum on so-called voter ID laws.
Republican Nora Espinoza, a State Representative from Roswell, and Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the Bernalillo County Clerk, have traded barbs on campaign finance, missing forums and their relative experience or inexperience. Both parties have filed ethics complaints against the opposing party’s candidate, though neither succeeded.
But during fundraisers, the issue du jour remains whether voters should be required to present photo identification before casting a ballot.
Republicans frame it as a matter of electoral integrity. They say requiring citizens to present identification at precinct stations prevents voter impersonation. And their messaging has been successful.
Democrats and voting rights advocates, meanwhile, point to research that shows cases of voter impersonation, the crime these laws are designed to prevent, are so rare as to be practically non-existent. One study published by the Washington Post counted 31 credible cases of voter fraud out of more than a billion votes cast from 2000 to 2014.
Critics say the laws are blatant attempts to suppress votes from minority, poor and elderly voters, who are less likely to possess photo identification, and more likely to encounter barriers towards obtaining it, including time and access to transportation. A Federal Appeals Court in North Carolina this summer struck down that state’s Voter ID law on grounds that the provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Although Voter ID would ultimately require approval from the New Mexico Legislature, the Secretary of State’s office wields considerable power to write a narrative that could help or hurt public support for the policy. New Mexico’s last elected Secretary of State, Republican Dianna Duran, made national headlines in 2011 when she suggested during a Legislative hearing that 37 foreign nationals voted in the previous year’s General election. Her claim set off a protracted legal battle, the fallout from which Duran’s appointed successor, Brad Winter, is still grappling with today.
The American Civil Liberties Union requested to see documentation to prove her claim. When Duran’s office refused, the ACLU filed a request under the State’s Public Records law. Duran eventually turned over motor vehicle documents that did not show any evidence of voter fraud. The issue of Voter ID also took center stage during Duran’s 2014 run for re-election, when Toulouse Oliver narrowly lost her first bid for Secretary of State.
New Mexicans typically vote for their Chief Election Official every four years, but scandal has ruptured the standard electoral timeline.
The first Republican to hold the seat since the stock market crash of 1929, Duran stepped down the same day she pleaded guilty to embezzlement and campaign finance violations last fall. Winter, a Republican appointee from Albuquerque, replaced her. He’ll officiate the Nov. 8 General election, which includes a special race to determine the successor to serve out the rest of Duran’s term through 2018.
Secretary of State is this year’s banner race. No other statewide candidates face challenges this cycle except for a Supreme Court Justice in a partisan retention battle. Not Governor, Lieutenant Governor nor Attorney General. Voters won’t be picking candidates for either of New Mexico’s U.S. Senate seats either. All three seats for the U.S. House are in contention, but none hotly. For many New Mexicans, the candidates for Secretary of State will appear inches below the names Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. As Lonna Atkeson, a Political Scientist at the University of New Mexico, put it, “There are no other interesting races on the ballot.”
Secretary of State has been this cycle’s most expensive race. Combined, the two candidates have raised more than $700,000. Espinoza has brought in about $267,000, according to Campaign Finance reports filed Monday. Her most recent report shows significant cash from donors in the ranching and oil and gas industry, including Petroleum Yates Company. Toulouse Oliver leads her opponent with just over $470,000, 33% more than she raised at this point in 2014. Some of her biggest donations came from the League of Conservation Voters, Emily’s List and the NEA Fund for Public Education.
New Mexico requires people to provide identification when applying for State benefits, Human Services Department accepts an array of documents that do not necessarily include a Photo ID. In addition to a driver’s license, the State will accept birth certificates, school or church records, insurance cards, wage stubs or letters from community resources, among other forms of identification.
Tolouse Oliver paints Espinoza as an unprincipled opportunist without relevant experience. “It’s almost like she just woke up one morning and thought, Oh! I’ll run for secretary of state,” Toulouse Oliver said. She notes that in nearly 10 years of Legislating, Espinoza never once sponsored a bill related to the Election process, until the day she made her candidacy official, when her name appeared atop Photo ID Legislation.
What Espinoza became known for championing in the statehouse are conservative causes including a “religious liberty” bill that would allow business owners to discriminate against LGBT people.
Espinoza, for her part, maintains that her legislative history is irrelevant to the office she seeks. “This is an administrative position, and all these newspapers and all these other reporters, they want to go back and—do they not get it?” she said at a Rio Rancho fundraiser. “I’m not running for state representative! I don’t know what their problem is.”
The Republican has attacked Toulouse Oliver for an instance in 2012, when 152 Absentee ballots in Bernalillo County did not initially get counted. They were discovered after the Election and sent to the Secretary of State’s office before results were certified.
Espinoza has also hit Toulouse Oliver for a donation made between Political Action Committees (PACs) when the Democrat ran against Duran in 2014. PACS are allowed to support, but are forbidden from directly coordinating with, candidates. An ethics complaint filed earlier this year pointed to a $10,000 donation from one PAC, Verde Voters, to another, SOS for Democracy, that supported Toulouse Oliver. That donation exceeds the limit and should have been reported, Espinoza says. Toulouse Oliver’s campaign has called the complaint baseless on grounds that it did not directly coordinate with the PAC.
No matter who wins in November, both candidates will be ending long tenures in their respective offices. Although Espinoza spent the majority of her speech in Rio Rancho on the topic of voter ID, she concluded with a more blatant appeal toward her fellow Republicans, invoking the virtue of sacrifice. Having won her State Representative seat with 78% of the vote, then rising to Chair of the House Education Committee, why would Espinoza give up all she has earned to run for an “administrative” position? "I stepped out because I know how important this office is."
Espinoza said numerous prominent Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, New Mexico’s only GOP member in Congress, encouraged her to run for Secretary of State. “Everyone said, ‘Nora, we need you to run.’ I could sit there and stay as state representative, and I love being state representative. … But right now, I realized how important it was and I stepped out because I know how important this office is.”
At the Elections warehouse, Toulouse Oliver wandered between rows of nondescript black boxes that idle for most of their existence, coming out once or twice a year to play a starring role in the democratic process. “I’m getting nostalgic and I’m getting sad,” says Toulouse Oliver, who has overseen at least 10 elections since beginning her job in 2007. This November’s will be her last hurrah in Bernalillo County. “I’ve spent a lot of hours in this place.”
NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker