Editor’s note: This is one of two profiles of the candidates for secretary of state in the Nov. 8 general election. Read our profile of Republican Nora Espinoza here.
Maggie Toulouse Oliver thinks the secretary of state should work to increase voter turnout. She says she’ll do just that if elected to the position, and points to her past efforts as Bernalillo County’s clerk.
“I was very active in advocating for online voter registration and automated voter registration at the Motor Vehicle Division,” she said.
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.
To help increase turnout, Oliver said she wants New Mexico to register people to vote automatically whenever they interact with a government agency, as laws have already mandated in California, Oregon, Connecticut, West Virginia and Vermont. People would have to opt out if they don’t want to be registered, as opposed to having to intentionally opt in under the current system.
In this year’s election, Oliver, a Democrat and the current Bernalillo County clerk, faces Republican Nora Espinoza, who represents the Roswell-area District 59 in the N.M. House of Representatives.
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.
This is Oliver’s second campaign to become secretary of state. She narrowly lost the 2014 election to Duran.
Other initiatives Oliver supports to increase voter turnout include expanding mobile voting centers so that people in rural parts of the state can vote more easily and developing a voter education and outreach program through the SOS Office.
“I’ve long had a passion for voter rights and voter education and encouraging people to participate in the democratic process,” she said.
Having served as the voting custodian for New Mexico’s largest county for nearly eight years, Oliver said encouraging voter participation on a statewide level would be a natural progression for her.
Ethics and 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. As secretary of state, Oliver said she would work to restore voters’ confidence in the SOS Office.
“Part of the reason why we’ve seen a downturn in voter turnout is that voters in the state have been receiving the message from elected officials that government is corrupt and it doesn’t matter if you participate,” she said.
Oliver attributed this mindset to a lack of enforcement of state ethics rules. While state law requires the secretary of state to audit 10 percent of campaign finance reports, violators discovered during Duran’s tenure usually went unpunished.
“Voters see that historically elected officials in New Mexico aren’t held accountable by the Secretary of State’s Office,” Oliver said.
To help restore people’s confidence in the office, Oliver said she supports the creation of a state ethics commission comprised of Democrats and Republicans to set ethical standards of conduct in government and police violations. Oliver wants such a commission to be responsible for ensuring candidates follow campaign finance laws.
A bill to create such a commission died in the Senate Rules Committee earlier this year. It’s met a similar fate in the Legislature several times in the past decade. This year’s legislation would have taken administration of the state’s campaign finance reporting system from the secretary of state and given it to the ethics commission. The SOS and county clerks would have been required to ensure all candidates for office were entered into the system.
“Further, the ethics commission would be required to notify county clerks and the SOS of any candidates who have unpaid fines or unfiled reports, who are not eligible to have their names placed on the ballot or to receive a certificate of election,” the bill read.
For now, without such an ethics commission, the SOS is charged with enforcing penalties for ethical violations and violations of the Campaign Reporting Act. But enforcement is difficult in part because there aren’t clear, written rules about how to enforce the state’s campaign finance laws. To complicate matters, part of the state campaign finance law was ruled unconstitutional years ago, and the Legislature and governor have yet to fix the unenforceable provisions.
Oliver said New Mexico’s current campaign finance reporting system allows candidates “to be less than clear” about how funds are spent. “One of the challenges we have in New Mexico is a lack of clarity around disclosure,” Oliver said.
The SOS office under Duran’s leadership was in the process of creating new rules when her crimes were revealed, and the rules were put on hold. That wasn’t the first time such rules have been delayed.
“They’ve always been scrapped before they’ve been published,” Oliver said. “So it’s really important to finally get some rules on the books, even if they’re not perfect at the outset. They can always be changed to handle real-world situations.”
As SOS, Oliver said she would work to make campaign finance laws and penalties for noncompliance clear.
Another problem Oliver said she would work to combat as secretary of state is so-called “dark money” – spending from secret funding sources that affects politics and elections.
“We don’t have any laws or rules on the books about what happens with an organization that’s currently not required to disclose its contributors, but it’s getting involved in elections and it’s advocating for or against political candidates,” Oliver said.
During the 2015 Las Cruces municipal election, a right-leaning political action committee, GOAL WestPAC, spent more than $86,000 on negative attacks against incumbent Mayor Ken Miyagishima and City Council candidates Kasandra Gandara and Jack Eakman – who all went on to win their races. The donors who funded that PAC’s spending were disclosed publicly, as required.
But tied to the PAC was the nonprofit organization GOAL Advocacy. As a nonprofit, GOAL Advocacy does not have to reveal who funds its work, even though GOAL Advocacy also worked to get out the vote in Las Cruces and influence the election.
The left spends money that’s difficult to trace too – especially in active public-union states like New Mexico, where labor unions spent $2.8 million during the 2013-2014 election cycle, according to New Mexico In Depth.
In fact, the funding for an ad currently airing on television from the left-leaning ProgressNow New Mexico that attacks Republican Gov. Susana Martinez remains secret. The group has reserved at least $94,000 in air time. “We’re not talking about anybody on the ballot. We’re not talking about any piece of legislation,” ProgressNow’s executive director, Pat Davis, was quoted by New Mexico In Depth as saying. Davis was explaining why disclosure of the ad’s funding isn’t required.
Legislation is required to address dark money, Oliver said. She praised lawmakers, such as Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who have tried for years, without success, to pass bills that would clarify and regulate some dark money. Of course, some political spending will remain secret in spite of state-level legislation as long as the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling remains in effect.
Still, something that can be done without legislation to make money in politics more transparent is improving the state’s campaign finance reporting system. Oliver said the system needs to be made “a lot more user-friendly and integrated” so that what a candidate reports in his or her finance report matches what a lobbyist reports to the SOS.
Oliver said the office, if she’s elected, would immediately reach out to candidates and campaigns that did not file reports on time. Was there a technical issue? If not, she said the office would try to help a candidate “come into voluntary compliance as quickly as possible,” rather than “waiting and letting things go for 100 days” and then fining a particular campaign $5,000 for not filing, which may have only been accidental, she said.
But ultimately, Oliver said, creating a state ethics commission is vital to restoring the public’s confidence in the SOS Office.
“I think that’s really necessary so that the public can start seeing that the Secretary of State’s Office is taking the job of holding our elected officials accountable very seriously,” Oliver said.