By MIKE COOK
Las Cruces Bulletin
“If we want to build a voting culture, we need to remove barriers to voting,” Doña Ana County Clerk Scott Krahling said Tuesday, Feb. 7, after about 4 percent of qualified voters cast their ballots in the Las Cruces Public Schools board of education election.
Having elections “scattered across the calendar” is a “barrier to people getting good information,” Krahling said.
Krahling said a bill currently pending in the New Mexico Legislature that would combine local government elections – including school board and municipal elections – into a single nonpartisan election has “challenges that need to be overcome, but the idea is good.”
House Bill 174, introduced by State Rep. James Smith, R-Bernalillo, Sandoval, Santa Fe, would place that election “on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in October of each odd-numbered year.”
The proposal drew mixed responses from Las Cruces city council members, school board candidates and school officials.
“As a school board member, it is sad that we have such a low turnout, because we work really hard for every vote,” said Maria Flores, who was reelected to her third term in District 3 on the LCPS board of education on Feb. 7. “I think it would really help to hold the school elections in October on off years, so that we can have more citizen participation. I think it would save the district money, and we would increase our numbers.”
“I am in favor of moving school board elections to the general election,” said Allison Smith, who lost a bid for the LCPS school board in District 2.
“School board positions are open to any registered voter living in the precinct in the school board district, yet many people do not know they are eligible to vote in school board elections,” she said. “They think because they do not have children in the public schools or they live in the county and not the city, they are not eligible to vote.”
“I do support combining the non-partisan, off-year elections,” said Las Cruces Mayor Pro-Tem Greg Smith, Allison Smith’s husband. He was elected to the city council in 2011 and re-elected in 2015 with voter turnout at 18.6 percent. Greg Smith said a combined election day for local elections “should reduce cost, reduce voter burnout, and hopefully increase voter turnout.”
Mayor Ken Miyagishima, who has run in both partisan and nonpartisan races during his service on the county commission and city council, also favors combining elections. “However, I think home rule cities should be able to decide if they want in or not,” he said.
Jo Galvan, Las Cruces Public Schools chief communications officer, opposes combining elections. “It’s possible the legislation would provide a small cost savings to school districts; however, there is concern that the public would react negatively when there are several entities placing general obligation bonds or tax mill levies at the same time,” she said. “We have to consider, what would be the public’s reaction if multiple governments (LCPS, NMSU, DACC, City of Las Cruces) had bond issues or mill levies on the ballot all at the same time? We believe the electorate would begin to pick and choose which entity to support. LCPS prefers that the school elections….remain separated.”
Former LCPS Superintendent Stan Rounds also opposes HB174. “I understand the provision will have heavy mail voting, and secondly it would also cluster these questions together. It won’t give clarity to voters about school-specific capital issues.”
Rounds is executive director of New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders and the New Mexico School Superintendents Association, an affiliate of the coalition.
“In this day of dramatic state budget cuts to public education, the bond/mill elections have become even more critical to fund new schools and repair older ones,” Galvan said. “All entities vying for support, at the same time, would inevitably impair efforts to support brickand- mortar projects that are unable to be funded from state operational funds.”
“Something I haven’t heard anyone else mention yet is that such (combined) elections also ought to increase the likelihood that more voters will have something on the ballot,” said Mayor Pro Tem Smith. “Currently, many people are not sure which districts are theirs; so, saying ‘Districts 1, 2, and 3, not 4 and 5, are voting’ probably causes some to wonder if they should embarrass themselves by showing up and being turned away. Others may simply figure that, with only one item on the ballot, it must not be that important. That would also seem to point to the importance of having something on the ballot each time for all voters: a bond election, a non-binding referendum on some current and relevant issue, something that brings people out.”
Mike Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.