Reforms in New Mexico Will Help Create a More Open and Accountable Democracy

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New Mexico State Capitol Building
The New Mexico State Capitol building in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo by Ron Cogswell via Creative Commons

In New Mexico Governor Lujan Grisham signed into law a set of reforms that will help ensure voters in the state know who is spending money to influence elections.

The Governor’s signature is an exclamation point at the end of a 60-day legislative session that included significant advances for democracy reform. The list of reforms enacted this year include:

  • Independent expenditure disclosure
  • A law establishing a new Ethics Commission
  • Updates to the state’s judicial public financing system
  • Automatic voter registration (AVR)
  • Election Day registration
  • Sign on to the National Popular Vote Compact.

Years of hard work by organizations like Common Cause New Mexico, New Mexico Ethics Watch, and others helped to pave the way to 2019, with state lawmakers enacting measures that will make state government more transparent, accessible, and accountable.

A quick look at independent spending in New Mexico over the past few election cycles would lead you to believe that there have been no independent expenditures made in the state. In fact, that is not the case. Millions of dollars have been pumped into state elections by outside groups, but because of a 2010 court decision, regulators were handicapped and New Mexico voters had no way of knowing who was responsible for this political spending.

After the 2010 court decision nullified much of New Mexico’s political disclosure regime, the state senate passed independent expenditure disclosure bills numerous times, but these efforts either died in the House or were vetoed by the former governor.

This failure to update the laws contributed to the dearth of independent expenditure disclosure in state campaigns—not because there was a lack of independent spending occurring in New Mexico elections, but because there was no law in place facilitating the reporting of this activity.

Now, thanks to the persistence of advocacy groups and committed lawmakers, New Mexico will shine a light on independent expenditures again, a welcome break from the troubling trend of political actors working to undermine the transparency of election spending. New Mexicans have a right to know who is trying to influence their votes, and this law will help ensure that right is respected.

In November 2018, 75% of New Mexico voters approved a state constitutional amendment to create an independent, bipartisan Ethics Commission. The amendment, however, tasked the state legislature with hammering out the details of the Commission’s responsibilities. Despite broad public support for the constitutional amendment, there was some concern that lawmakers would try to undercut the amendment by creating a feckless ethics watchdog. Instead, lawmakers honored the will of state voters, passing legislation to establish a commission with real teeth.

This new body will have broad jurisdiction over the state’s campaign finance, lobbying, and governmental contracting laws. The bipartisan commission also will have the power to develop an ethics code for state officials, and to issue subpoenas as part of its investigative authority. The Ethics Commission will serve to ensure government officials are accountable to, and acting in the best interest of, the people of New Mexico.

Additionally, during this year’s legislative session, state lawmakers updated New Mexico’s public financing program for judicial elections and elections for the Public Regulation Commission. The reforms will make it easier for candidates to participate in the program and, ultimately, help to increase accountability in all branches of New Mexico’s government.

Additionally, the improvements to the program will lessen the risk of improper use of public funds by prohibiting candidates’ payment of family members.

The AVR legislation makes registering to vote an opt-out process, rather than an opt-in procedure, when New Mexico residents are filling out paperwork at the Motor Vehicles Division. As research has shown, AVR helps to boost voter turnout on Election Day while simultaneously ensuring more accurate voting records are kept by election authorities.

AVR can also save the state money by utilizing electronic transfer and saving on printing, mailing, and data entry. Similarly, Senate Bill 672 will make it easier for state residents to vote by allowing them to register at the polls on Election Day. Both of these reforms will make voting easier and more accessible for the people of New Mexico.   

Finally, New Mexico joined the growing chorus of states that have enacted the National Popular Vote Compact, an effort to ensure that the votes of all Americans count equally in presidential elections.   

The flurry of activity in Santa Fe this year shows that comprehensive reform is possible.

Collectively, New Mexico’s new laws will make government more accessible, transparent, and accountable. New Mexico’s electorate will have greater opportunity to participate in the democratic process and to know the true sources of funds spent to influence state and local elections.

And, with the creation of the new Ethics Commission, New Mexico voters can be confident that lawmakers are serving the public, rather than their own self-interest.

While 2019 has already been an incredible year for democracy reform in New Mexico, there is still more to come. Later this year, Albuquerque voters will have the opportunity to bring democracy dollars to city elections.

The initiative would provide residents of Albuquerque with public funding vouchers to contribute to local candidates of their choosing, and a similar program in Seattle helped to diversify and expand participation significantly in that city’s elections in 2017.

If voters in Albuquerque approve democracy dollars this year, it will represent yet another major win for election reform in New Mexico. Through broad and consistent engagement, New Mexico’s experience in 2019 demonstrates that Americans can realize a more open and accountable democracy.

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